One night, I came home from seventh grade to inform my parents that I had been asked to sign a contract that said I would comply with the school honor code. The discussion of cheating felt very adult, and I was gleeful to be inducted into the community of potential plagiarists. Quickly, the bubble burst. As it turned out, I had promised not only to refrain from plagiarism myself, but also to report any one of my peers who violated the code. My father launched the impossible question: would you ever turn someone in? No, we agreed. At age twelve, I had signed the first contract that I fully intended to break. Why do students cheat? In an effort to answer this question, an anonymous writer dubbed "the shadow scholar" revealed to The Chronicle of Higher Education the secret workings of a business that thrives off of students' appetite for custom-written papers. This "scholar" finds that the educational system has failed most of its students and, with its emphasis on graded evaluation over personal development, has become a hollow social construct rather than a meaningful learning experience. Students—and he takes on clients in programs that range from masters and doctoral programs to nursing and seminary courses—want their degrees, but choose to "opt out" of completing the required work. Though I lack the evidence to support it, I suspect that tests and cheating on tests have existed for the same amount of time. So I do not believe that students today are innately lazier or less "moral" than those of the past. Rather, we can access the giant porthole to iniquity called the Internet. Not only can we scour for sources online (the scholar "hasn't been to a library once" on the job), but we can also locate professionals who offer to assemble them, for a price. The demand has always existed; the Internet just enables the "supply" to rise up and meet it. That explanation seems simple enough, but what is the solution? The scholar writes, hauntingly, that he's "never had a client complain that he'd been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken." After all, a custom essay is difficult to detect in a large lecture with scant opportunity for in-class evaluation. Maybe professors shouldn't bother—maybe even the American attitude toward cheating is singular and puritanical. But wouldn't the value of a degree plummet as a result? Perhaps it has happened already, and the process of obtaining a degree has become unglued from the process of using it. Does a nurse or an engineer really need to know how to write an essay? Students have complained that parts of education are impractical since the dawn of human history. I hear about it every day in CC. Now, the change is that students are empowered to make the executive decision on what they "need" to do. And the answer, at least from the article, is: not much. While a professor earnestly babbles about "learning to think," his Machiavellian pupil has one eye on his phone and the other on his screen that flashes from ESPN and Hulu to Cramster and GradeSaver to this shadow guy in a single tap. Why does this make my blood boil? Perhaps I am a tight-ass who wants everyone to suffer, or at least to work as diligently as I do. Whether or not I choose to accept that, I think there is more at stake. Believe me when I say that I am not one to moralize—professional plagiarism would not scare me so much if I truly believed that the job or graduate school ahead could distinguish me from a cheater. Unfortunately, I do not. With the sheer volume of applications, how can we invest our faith in the powers of discernment of authorities who have failed time and time again? Certainly, the students who do their work because they are interested in the material get their reward, but there is no good reason to allow them to be swindled out of the external recognition that is their due. The Chronicle article demonstrates that the shadow's sector of business is picking up speed. Recently Spectator announced that "reports of plagiarism are on the rise at Barnard," and there is no reason to assume that conditions across the road are any different. Professor Marina Cords explained that students cheat when they are "desperate," but when have we not been desperate? The Internet enables plagiarism to such a degree that it demands a radical rethinking of both the aims and the measuring tools associated with traditional education. Unless professors can combine their cogitative forces to convince students to do their work, someone must figure out a way to contain this monster before it devours the modern degree for all it is worth. Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English. The Far Side of the Familiar runs alternate Wednesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff