Nothing sums up the fear and uncertainty of going back to college classes quite like the act of buying textbooks — a cruel and unusual ritual that seems counter to every goal of the American education system. It’s not enough that American educational quality continues to slide, or that teacher pay remains depressed, or that our collegiate systems are letting down students of color and the poor.
No matter if there’s a $1.6 billion college debt crisis. Even in 2020, if you want course credits, you have to shell out hundreds of dollars for books… even though you’re also shelling out thousands just to be in the class. The internet revolution may have destroyed newspapers, but it apparently hasn’t touched the universe of school texts. In fact, somehow, textbooks have been getting more expensive.
To sum it up, we can blame monopolistic market moves and an educational system seemingly rigged to work in tandem with major publishers. The harm to students, meanwhile, remains obvious and present on every campus. In a typical tale of broke struggle, Kharl Reynado, a senior at the University of Connecticut, described to Vox how she’s had to drop courses that required she spend upwards of $500 on books. “I’ve had friends who spend entire paychecks on just their textbook costs in the beginning of the semester and had little money left over to cover food, gas, and sometimes, in extreme cases, rent because of it,” she explained.
This state of affairs is nothing less than a heinous crime against affordable, equitable education. Standing in opposition, however, are a handful of brave teachers who confront the textbook crisis by taking matters into their own hands. Every semester, through a wink and a nudge or explicit instruction, they find ways to get free PDFs or dirt-cheap Xerox copies to their pupils. It’s a quiet rebellion normalized across America. And we oughta salute these fine educators, who spurn copyright law in favor of justice.
A decade ago, I encountered a few of these men and women at the University of Southern California, where everyone knew about the nearby copy shop that reproduced books (unlike, say, the local law-abiding Kinko’s) and woke TAs ripped entire neuroscience textbooks off Tor. More than once, I Venmo’d someone $15 for a janky three-ring binder filled with journalism materials. And if posts on social media are any indication, it’s really not hard to find clever alternatives — even while playing in the ethical gray area of school administrative rules. It includes the tale of the young professor who followed school policy by audibly telling his class to buy a full list of books, but flashed a notebook with the words “DON’T BUY THIS” while reading out the titles of all but two texts.
Educators have gotten reprimanded and even fired for not toeing the company line when it comes to mandatory textbooks, and it’s not an issue that all teachers and professors agree on. Those who are textbook authors, for one, tend to be especially touchy about the whole piracy thing (even if they make pennies on the Benjamin compared to their publishing overlords). But with the COVID-19 pandemic turning a spotlight on the needs and inequities of American schools, now is the best time to bust up a status quo that just burdens kids and their families with more costs.
As one university tenure-track professor told me (under condition of anonymity), “I’m not writing anything for a standard publisher. Authoring a textbook wouldn’t be for the money anyway, but now, I’ll just write and give my materials out,” she says. “It kinda sucks that people always find a profit motive to stick onto knowledge we should share openly.”
Now, publishers are moving to digital subscription models that require students or schools to pay every year, rather than just spending on a set of textbooks that can be reused over time. While some experts think this could bring down educational material costs for teachers and students, others are worried it just locks in publisher control over access and information. Considering that Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — the five publishers who together dominate 80 percent of the school textbook market — have for decades jacked up prices and forced us to cop “new editions” with indiscernible changes, well… I’m not optimistic!
Perhaps new debates over the role of textbooks in schools (and their inefficiency for learning) will lessen how much students have to spend. Maybe there are ways to distribute more open-source materials and decouple big contracts with brand-name publishers. But at the moment, much of the onus remains on individual educators to empower their students to take alternative routes.
Whether it’s distributing paper copies or sharing a Reddit thread on torrents, teachers are proving that piracy can be a liberating act. And as school resumes around the country, let us raise a toast to those who know a great education shouldn’t cost so damn much.