Thanksgiving break will soon be upon us. Students will fight lines on roads and airports to head home before their 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 fowl and watching football (or falling asleep while a football game plays on TV). And most of them will take at least one textbook along for the ride. However, if history is any guide, 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 so frequently. 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 and efficient 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 missed the real intent and value of bringing the texts home. So it is important to ask “to what end?”
My experience as a long-time college student, professor and parent of college-age children has convinced me that we misunderstand students’ intent when we think the textbooks are taken home to be read. That is sometimes true. However, their primary function seems to be as a form of insurance against unwanted family obligations, such as attendance at objectionable gatherings and, even more, against required participation in housecleaning, shopping, helping in the kitchen, etc., in preparation, or cleaning up afterward. It is like an updated version of going to college primarily to avoid getting drafted.
When temporarily returned students have things they want to do, like hanging out with old friends, they conveniently forget to crack the books they brought home (though just bringing them home sent Mom a positive message that they are taking college seriously). But when there is a family get-together or work to be done around the house, the “need” to study suddenly arises.
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 reasonably expect to wear on a trip? Don’t we keep spare tires we hope to never use in our car trunks? How many tools (which are a form of insurance against possible household emergencies) do we accumulate before we have an imÂmediate need for them? How often does procrastination save us from others’ impositions, by “proving” that 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. Instead, we should be glad, because it proves that, despite all the academic “gloom and doom” prophets, they are learning some important survival skills at school. Besides, when we were in school, most of us did the same thing.