Jonathan Barkat for The Chronicle Review
Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education published one of the most disturbing articles on higher ed I have ever read. The author, writing under the pseudonym Ed Dante, is a man paid by students to write their papers for them. This rare opportunity to hear from a "shadow scholar," as the Chronicle dubbed him, has been a shock to academia's system, confronted by the reality of cheating students and the lengths to which they'll go to avoid doing their own work. One unsettling nugget from Dante was his observation that he gets many requests from seminary students, nursing students, and education students. Andrew J. Coulson considers this last cohort in a post at CATO:
Again, we can’t know from a single ghost-writer’s experience if ed school students systematically cheat more in college than their peers in other fields, but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised if they do. We’ve organized education in this country in a way that decouples skill and performance from compensation, and instead couples compensation to the mere trappings of higher learning (e.g., masters degrees). We’ve created a powerful financial incentive for existing and future teachers to cheat.
The ghost-writer says he's never heard of one of his clients getting caught plagiarizing. Instead, they have graduated free of implication, to go on to careers in the real world, taking their cheating habits (and educational gaps) with them.
Dante both disdains and pities his clients, which he says are usually either ESL students, "the lazy rich kid," or "hopelessly deficient students." Clients' interactions with the author are desperate, often unintelligible, and sometimes so measured as to make one wonder whether they could have just saved the money and done the work.
In a live chat hosted by the Chronicle, I asked Dante, "How can we put you out of a job?" He was reluctant to make suggestions, but then answered, "Tell [students] that their grades aren't the most important thing going....I've seen a number of professors respond to my article by insisting that more severe penalties and a greater threat of failure are needed to address this problem. This is exactly the opposite of the point I'm trying to make."
But if grades aren't a big deal, academic dishonesty may decrease, but it won't solve the problem of incompetent college graduates. And we'll still see sentences like this one in an email from one of Ed Dante's clients: "thanx so much for uhelp ican going to graduate to now."
Thus it's a bit tricky trying to glean a moral from this story. Readers are crying, "This is a wake-up call. We need to do something to stop plagiarism!" But what? Dante gets lots of requests for papers on academic ethics . Clearly we have failed this generation in teaching character - the way you behave when no one is watching - and as a result, much of higher education has become a grand charade. At least now we have, if not a solution, a clearer picture of the problem.