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.