Archive for November, 2010

As usual, I’m late getting to this one, the subject having already been linked heavily and lived its brief life in the marketplace of ideas before everyone moves on to the next thing. But I just can’t let it pass without having my say, too.

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, written behind a shield of anonymity, gives a first-person account of a ghost writer who specializes in academic papers for students. The author describes in considerable detail what he (or she?) does to satisfy customers (I use the word customers purposely, knowing that those very people see themselves — even within the context of institutions of higher learning — not as students but as customers) and goes on to blithely blame the colleges and universities themselves both for creating the demand for his services and for failing to police their own students. I have a hard time imaging what possible motivation the author could have for essentially revealing what a huge lying, cheating, irresponsible fraud he or she is. Hubris, perhaps? The accusations lobbed at administrators, faculty, and students alike do nothing to excuse the ghost writer’s behavior, although they do add quite a bit of context.

So students are either too lazy or too unprepared or too incompetent or too scared or whatever to do their own work. Instead, they hire it out. This can hardly be a surprise, human nature being what it is. But the ubiquity of it and the ease with which it’s accomplished may have been kicked up a couple notches in the new computer and communications era. I judge this to be an unwitting byproduct or effect of the democratization of production, but the willingness of so many to avail themselves of such possibilities (as either the ghost writer or the student cheating him- or herself out of an education) also demonstrates a failure of ethics, which used to be one of the principal objects of an education.

Ghost writing in the professions, such as a memoir or business letter, does not pose a problem for me. The dynamics are authorship are looser, allowing for all manner of collaboration, acknowledged or not. Indeed, the idea that a scholarly publication or novel would make it to print without editorial involvement is anathema to ensuring high quality. The student-teacher relationship, however, is a very different dynamic, and subverting it through academic misconduct, by an active commission of fraud, with a variety of persons and reputations harmed, carries a wholly negative outcome for all parties involved.

As it happens, I picked up Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind to reread after a couple decades. (Weirdly, at least to me, the Amazon link above provides numerous formats, including an audio edition! The top review is very, very worthwhile — one of the best I’ve ever read.) I don’t remember Bloom in the book discussing academic misconduct, but the entire book is about loss of academic integrity, which might even be worse, since his arguments implicate educators far more than students. That charge has obviously come true for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that many institutions, even the prestigious ones, have become degree mills. Or worse, they are active participants in an omnipresent enterprise (within the larger pseudoculture, of course) that can no longer imagine anything better to do than train students for a life of consumption.

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This blog post, which was picked up by The Consumerist, argues that college/university is a bad deal for most students. It’s well enough written and argued (I won’t pick my usual nits), but I daresay the author/blogger has an awfully narrow view. If one approaches higher education solely as a consumer product meant to pay future dividends — mostly financial — then the awesome debt load most recent graduates now carry makes the initial cost-benefit analysis look like the whole endeavor is a preposterously bad deal. To those students, I say, caveat emptor. An almost total lack of financial advice from parents foists decisions on high school students selecting colleges at a time when they are especially unprepared to weigh big financial risks, since they tend to gather motivations and directions from their peers and some vague received wisdom of what life and higher education mean or ought to mean.

Let me acknowledge up front that in many respects, college is indeed not the right place for a lot of people. It has become too much an extension of high school and functions now as a 4- to 7-year party for those who take scholarship not at all seriously. Institutions of higher education are also part of the problem, from the elites that extort huge sums for their supposed cachet to the online degree mills that grant meaningless credentials based on life experience. All the more reason to make wise choices, preferably with the guidance of someone who has been through the experience and has more remove than the typical 25-year-old. Recent graduates also have the bad luck to be entering the job market at a notoriously difficult time. Accordingly, one’s perspective changes a lot based on extrinsic factors not entirely germane to the intrinsic value of higher ed.

Such an economic lens is certainly part of the picture, and the blogger admits making a number of poor decisions he might take back now with the advantage of hindsight, but economics is not the only or best means of evaluating activity in different stages of life. A good, valuable, meaningful, accomplished life is simply not measured in dollars. If that were so, there would not be so many boorish, self-indulgent, and often unhappy rich people (especially rich celebrities) whose drag on society far outweighs any contributions they make. I will eschew naming any names, but a long list could be assembled handily. Our collective fascination with the rich and jealousy of their circumstances only demonstrates further our failure to recognize true worth.

What interests me is the lost sense that knowledge and understanding, gained through a time-honored system of submission to expertise and authority (as opposed to autodidacticism, which is effective for only a sliver of the population), often leading to a circumspection and personal depth invisible to those who enter the trades or professions, with or without the university degree, but who have no sense of themselves or their place in the world except as employees or technocrats. Those people are many, too, and not so surprising when you consider that most of our daily life is characterized as economic activity rather than development of the self or service to others.

The author’s rhetorical gesture about love of learning rings false to me. He tossed it in there as a hedge (yadda, yadda, yadda …) but clearly is more obsessed with the earning potential a college degree should confer. He appears to believe, like most, that learning is more about ascertaining facts, which he could do himself, rather than developing a cohesive way of thinking over a lifetime, yet built on habits of mind learned under the tutelage of professors during a concentrated, formative period in early adulthood. For those with such a stunted view of life, the famous Socratic statement that an unexamined life is not worth living is regarded as a fool’s errand when there’s money to be made.