- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009


As Thanksgiving approached, students fought lines on roads and airports to head home before impending final exams to get their laundry washed, give educational progress reports to their principal financial backers, and participate in traditional family holiday activities such as eating turkey and falling asleep in front of a football game on TV. Many of them took textbooks with them. However, history reveals that many of those texts will return to school undisturbed.

If you have ever participated in or observed this textbook ritual, you may have wondered why it occurs. After all, it appears to be an inefficient behavior, where costs are incurred for no obvious benefit. Yet the continuation of a behavior is one of the most reliable indicators that those involved consider it sensible for their circumstances.

Given this apparent conflict, how can we decide if the holiday textbook round trip actually makes sense? It may be that the practice is efficient, but that we have not recognized all the benefits. So it is important to ask “to what end?”

My experience as a longtime college student, professor and parent has convinced me that we may have overlooked what might be the biggest benefit some students get from taking textbooks home. We know students could profit by reading the books.

However, the primary benefit often seems to be as a form of insurance against unwanted family obligations. It can serve as an excuse to get out of attendance at objectionable gatherings or required participation in preparations, helping in the kitchen, or cleaning up after. It is like an updated version of going to college to avoid getting drafted.

When temporarily returned students have things they want to do, like hanging out with friends, they forget to crack the books they brought home (though just bringing them home sent mom and dad a positive message that they are taking college seriously). But when their unwilling help or participation is requested, they suddenly remember the “need” to study.

Once you view taking texts home as a defense against unwanted family obligations, it makes sense as efficient insurance. And it is just one of many applications of “personal insurance” that we all practice. Don’t we typically take more clothes than we expect to wear on a trip? Don’t we keep spare tires we hope to never use in our car trunks? Don’t we accumulate tools (which are a form of insurance against possible household emergencies) before we have an immediate need for them? Don’t we procrastinate, which, in part, saves us from others’ impositions by “proving” we are already overwhelmed?

Given the frequency with which we encounter similar “personal insurance” situations, we should not be too critical of our children’s holiday textbook ruse. It proves that, despite all the academic “gloom and doom” critics, students are learning some important real world survival skills at school. Besides, when we were in school, many of us did the same thing.

Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

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