The Ethics Mill

I recently read an article that frustrated me, made me think, and then made me think again about the way Americans view education. The article is “Cheating Goes Global as Essay Mills Multiply: From Virginia to Manila: on the trail of papers for cash,” written by Thomas Bartlett for the Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2009.

With corporate headquarters in Ukraine; employees in the Philippines, Nigeria, and India; and “headquarters” in Virginia, Essay Writers is truly global in scope. Although the stated purpose of many essay-for-sale websites is to provide examples, in reality, most purchased essays (at a rate of $20-40 per page) are handed in verbatim.

When college students (*note* Essay Writers also offers theses and dissertations) are busy with clubs, service organizations, sports, internships, and student government, why should they waste their time researching for a general education paper?

“Maybe your school assignments are too complicated,” says, one of the websites under the umbrella of Essay Writers. “Maybe your interests have nothing in common with literature and creative writing.” Forget the possibility that you might have something to learn from tasks outside your comfort zone. Instead of re-prioritizing, why not pay someone else to do it?

Just as many American companies are outsourcing their administrative tasks, many American students are perfectly willing to outsource their academic work.

Here’s how one customer of Essay Writers described his reasoning:

“Like most people in college, you don’t have time to do research on some of these things,” he says. “I was hoping to find a guy to do some good quality writing.”

The phrase, “Like most people in college…” really catches my attention. Why not? I want to ask. What’s the underlying problem? Is it the presence of too much pressure to succeed? Is it laziness? Some of the writers for Essay Writers seem to think so. One told The Chronicle,

Although he takes pride in the writing he’s done over the years, he doesn’t have much respect for the students who use the service. “These are kids whose parents pay for college,” he says. “I’ll take their money. It’s not like they’re going to learn anything anyway.”

Is he right? Is it time just to “give up” and allow college to become a Citizen Mill that turns out individuals gifted at manipulating time, money, data, and other individuals in pursuit of their aims?

If nothing else, students have learned that the end justifies the means. A college degree doesn’t have to represent thinking skills, knowledge, and practice to be valuable. When applying for a job, someone who is self-taught, who has read the Great Conversations and pursued knowledge from today’s brightest minds, still is not on equal footing with someone who has a Bachelors degree, even if that person floated through and learned nothing.

There’s something wrong with this thinking.

It is ironic to me that the exposure of white-collar crime still shocks and angers, when it is a natural continuation of the logic developed in the education system. Consider this phrase from “Non-plagiarized custom essays.” It’s not plagiarism; it belongs to you. It doesn’t matter that it’s not your own work.

Once learned, subjective ethics can be twisted or redefined so easily, like pouring a trickle of water over a still-wet black-and-white painting and watching gray spread over it.

Thinkers in all fields, not just literature and not just academia, need to take a step back and consider the values that are shaping our education system. Knowledge and content are important. But intentionally or not, we also are sending value messages to the leaders of the next generation.

It takes a great deal of idealism or, I think, blindness, to imagine that the habits learned in the classroom will not carry over to life.

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