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Brian Judge '11: The Brown bookstore bamboozle

By Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic — a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing — my boss at a used textbook store I worked at this summer must have been the most cynical man on the planet.

He could tell you off of the top of his head where to find Rossum's Universal Robots, what class it was being used for, and how much it cost, but could not care less about robot dystopias. Books were just a product he was selling — a means to make a living. One might go so far as to call him alienated from the true value of the books he sells.
The same specter is haunting Thayer Street: the specter of overpriced textbooks and commoditized learning. While looking for a copy of the glossy special-edition Brown University Laboratory Manual, I was absolutely stunned to discover how absurdly expensive a glorified spiral-bound notebook was. In that moment, sticker shock supplanted whatever interest I may have had in learning chemistry.

If the cost of books has any purchase on a student's class selection, then the Open Curriculum isn't allowed to work its magic because price has obstructed the value that a student places on his or her academic interests. Consequently, course selection becomes an array of advantageous purchases instead of a reflection of genuine interest.

Imagine if you had to give 100 dollars (or whatever the average cost of a lecture is) to a clerk at a register in front of the classroom, or give the security guard a twenty before entering the Science Library instead of swiping your card. Seems ridiculous, right? 

However, it is indisputable that this would fundamentally change the way in which people relate to their studies, because it makes price more of an aspect of one's day to day experience. A liberal arts education isn't about maximizing the monetary return on our investment. It is about cultivating and broadening our intellectual faculties, not our eye for bargains.

The vast majority of costs and prices are dealt with before the semester even starts so as to allow students to pursue their studies with as few distractions (price tags) as possible. This allows each of us to make decisions based on the value we find in going to see a professor during office hours or eating hot ham at the Ratty, and not how much it costs.

At first glance, having the bookstore sell textbooks at cost may seem ridiculous: a bookstore is a business like any other, and it is entitled to make a profit to sustain its own operation. But the bookstore is an essential part of this non-profit university just like the anthropology department, and the anthropology department certainly isn't expected to turn a profit. Having one's academic interests add to the black ink on the university's balance sheet suggests that Brown derives at least some pecuniary benefit from putting price before value, which is antithetical to the "spirit of free inquiry" that Brown nominally hopes to foster. To state the obvious, textbooks are essential to every student's academic experience at Brown and should not have to be stigmatized by a scarlet number.

The bookstore has everything you need for your Brown education your tuition bill doesn't supply. Obviously, these costs can't be precisely anticipated in advance because you get to choose your classes. While much ado has been raised about the proposed $300 per annum tax on private Providence college students, the "$400-500" that the bookstore Web site estimates for course materials for a semester is accepted as an inevitable semiannual rite.

Given the already hefty price tag associated with joining this community and the questions of fairness that others have raised in conjunction with this issue, it seems to me that every effort should be made to ensure that students are free to pursue their own genuine academic interests free from the specter of price. 



Brian Judge '11 cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. He can be reached at brian_judge (at) brown.edu.




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