a writer's blog

Ghostwriters Evolved

the one and twenty

the one and twenty

If we can’t fix our educational system soon, we will take the path of the ancient Mycenaeans, marveling at technological artifacts we can no longer create, or use.

Science and reason are under attack from many sides: from pseudoscience to organized superstitions to conspiracy theories to right-wing anti-intellectualism. But, like in every good George Romero movie, the worst enemy is working from within: our very own educational system.

Something’s broken, and if we can’t fix it, we can kiss our future technology and cultural accomplishments good-bye and take the very path the ancient Mycenaeans took, marveling at the crumbling highrises and technological artifacts we no longer can create, maintain, or use.

In Germany, the defense secretary Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg just encountered his personal career stopper as more and more plagiarized sources from his doctoral thesis are popping up all over the internet. The German Spiegel wrote:

Should the plagiarism concerns be proven, it is still not a given that the minister, who has long been one of Germany’s most popular politicians, will lose his degree. Sloppy citation is hardly rare, and German universities have tended to show clemency in many such cases. Still, should it be shown that the copying was done knowingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet could lose a doctor.

This, of course, is brazen nonsense. What, exactly, does “knowingly” mean when all the evidence from the plagiarized passages discovered so far have written “GHOSTWRITER” all over them? Do we have to tattoo this on journalists’ foreheads?

Crowdsourcing is already under way, and yesterday I wrote this little piece (German language) on how research can make a valuable contribution to academic and political honesty. But would that solve the problem? No, it wouldn’t: along the progressing digitalization of academia, a new & improved creed of ghostwriters has already evolved.

This is an article you need to read in full, The Shadow Scholar: The Chronicle of Higher Education, over at the Chronicle:

Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you? I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.

Even if everything were verifiable in principle in a fully digitalized world (which of course it won’t, and can’t, for various reasons), ghostwriters in academia will not go extinct, they will evolve even further. But ghostwriters aren’t at the heart of the problem: our educational system is.

Our educational system doesn’t provide the fundamental framework for any conceivable future, and hasn’t done so for a long time. Both basic and higher learning have veered toward training and away from education, primarily (I think) a victim of economical/ideological forces fundamentally hostile to the vast opportunities our pace of technological innovation and evolving media landscape have opened up to. Then, education gets more costly by the minute, and the jobs needed for people to pay back their education loans evaporate even before graduation. If we follow through with that, the European school system will soon look like the U. S. school system, and the American university system will soon look like the European university systems, all locatable on a quality scale that ranges between the bland and the abysmal. Except those well-known class of institutions the tuition fees of which compare to a student loan like the GDP of a medium-sized country compares to the loose change in your pocket.

And there we are. From The Shadow Scholar:

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let’s be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn’t get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

That sums it up nicely. Certainly, there’s a whole bunch of problems we need to deal with to fix our educational system, but this is one of them.

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3 Responses

  1. Seems that even a technical term for this exists: “custom essays”. Is this an industry?

  2. Whoa I can’t believe how many hits the search term “custom essay” generates… It’s not just an industry, it’s an educational-industrial complex!