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In the Chronicle's "Selected New Books On Higher Education" section this week, three of the nine books listed are about some form of cheating in higher education. "Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League," is the story of a young man who cheated his way into school. But the other two -- "Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It" and "The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat" -- suggest that there is a kind of epidemic of cheating going on right now in higher education. And they may be right. One researcher at Clemson University claims that between a quarter and a third of college students admit to cheating on tests.

But why? Are students more ethically challenged than they used to be? There may be some evidence for that. No doubt a certain postmodern sensibility has taken over when it comes to judging right from wrong. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have chronicled in their books resulting from the National Study of Youth and Religion, the generation currently in college loves to talk about how what is right for them may not be right for others, and vice versa. And then there are those who suggest that young people today just have a different understanding of, say, plagiarism. Thanks to the Internet, they apparently believe we all just collaborate to put together one big product and it really doesn't belong to anyone in particular. I'm pretty skeptical of this explanation. Even a 12-year-old knows the difference between what it feels like to do your own work and to borrow someone else's.

In an article in the Atlantic, Richard Gunderman (described as "MD, PhD" and "professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University") speculates about the proliferation of paper-writing services, in which students pay someone at a website to send them a customized paper for a particular assignment. I was reminded in a conversation earlier today that paying other students to write your assignments is hardly something new. I certainly knew people in college who did this. But what these websites offer is something more reliable than a single other student -- you can ask at the last minute and for the right price you'll be guaranteed a product in time. You can also be guaranteed anonymity. No one is going to rat you out. And maybe you don't trust your fellow students -- when push comes to shove.

Gunderman suggests that as a society we have come to accept the idea of paying other people to write for us:

The idea of paying someone else to do your work for you has become increasingly commonplace in our broader culture, even in the realm of writing. It is well known that many actors, athletes, politicians, and businesspeople have contracted with uncredited ghostwriters to produce their memoirs for them. There is no law against it.

I have done some ghostwriting myself so this may be a little self-serving, but I'm not sure there is anything wrong with an athlete or an actor or a politician simply deciding that they'd rather have a professional writer write their memoirs or op eds. Presumably they have other talents besides writing. And there is not necessarily any connection between being good at writing and being good at any of those other things.

But Gunderman gets at a deeper problem, which I think tells us something about the state of higher education. The problem with the move toward universal higher education is that every job requires it, but the classes you take and the way you are evaluated may have little to do with the vocation you are trying to pursue. People who want to become physical therapists or accountants or computer scientists or product designers will all find themselves in courses that require writing term papers. These people will be required to choose from courses like introduction to psychology or animal behavior or writers of the American West, and then asked to write 20 pages about them. The problem is twofold. These courses are plainly irrelevant to the career path these young people have chosen. But no one in higher education has made the case that these courses are relevant in any other way either. No one is asking people in these courses to consider that college could be important for other reasons . . . like finding meaning and purpose in life.

Maybe this is simply a bridge too far, but it seems to me that if you are going to convince a budding veterinarian that writing papers is important, you will either have to show that writing a 20-page paper is somehow an important skill for veterinarians -- probably not true -- or that there is something inherently interesting and important in the subject matter you are asking them to study even if it is not related to their career. Colleges very rarely do this.

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