Critics question need for frequent textbook updates

At MU’s bookstore, 50 percent are used books.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:09 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

“Optimus magister bonus liber,” goes the Latin adage: “The best teacher is a good book.” For generations of modern-day Latin students, that book has been “Wheelock’s Latin.”

But as the latest generation of students buying their Wheelocks in the coming weeks, they will discover a textbook that looks different from the original, densely packed tome that Frederic Wheelock sketched out a half-century ago. There are photographs, maps and eye-pleasing layouts. Exercises reflect the latest pedagogical theory. Readings feature fewer battlefield dispatches and more emphasis on women and everyday life. There is even a dirty poem by Catullus.

“The times, they are a-changing,” says Richard LaFleur, the University of Georgia classicist who took over the editorship of the series in the mid-1990s after Wheelock’s 1987 death. “We want to keep up with the changes.’’

Latin, however, hasn’t changed for 2,000 years. And where publishers see essential updates, critics of high textbook prices often wonder if new editions aren’t just a ploy to raise prices.

Unnecessary updates are “one of the biggest driving factors behind the high costs of textbooks,” says Merriah Fairchild, higher education advocate at the California Public Interest Research Group.

LaFleur says that many textbooks are updated too frequently, but that even Latin needs a fresh coat of paint sometimes. Textbook prices are a hot topic on college campuses and have prompted hearings on Capitol Hill. In January, a CalPIRG report found University of California students could expect to pay $898 per year for textbooks, up from $642 in 1996-97. The average price per new textbook was over $100. Three-quarters of faculty members surveyed thought new editions were usually unnecessary.

At MU, the University Bookstore advises students and parents to budget $450 to $500 a semester for course materials. Michelle Froese, an employee of the Bookstore, said the bookstore makes a little more than 4 cents per dollar.

Fifty percent of the store’s textbook inventory this fall is used, said Froese. While the store understands that used books are more economical for students, she said, it is up to the faculty to decide which edition they will use.

Many faculty members also end up ordering new editions because there are only a finite number of used books available, Froese said. By the time enough are tracked down, she said, the cost is no longer attractive to the student because of administrative and labor costs.

In Wheelock’s case, Harper Collins essentially publishes Wheelock’s as a trade book, which means cheaper paper. Wheelock’s has a Web site but is not bundled with expensive CD-ROMs.

The basic paperback version, the most popular introductory college Latin text, costs just $20.95. A supplementary reader is $19 and a workbook $17. Prices will probably rise a few dollars with a revised sixth edition due out next year, and a still-more-expensive hardcover is in the works, targeting high schools. But Harper Collins insists it will be reasonably priced.

Calpirg’s Fairchild says Latin “sounds like a good example of a subject that doesn’t need much updating.” But she adds: “Any publisher who is consciously trying to keep the costs of production low so they can pass on the savings to students is doing the students a favor.’’

— Jennifer Myers of the Missourian contributed to this report.

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