A couple stories have been making the Internet rounds of late, making college teachers everywhere shake our heads (after all, I are one) and drawing forth the usual commonplaces about higher education. In one such story, Central Florida University business professor Richard Quinn discovered that fully 200 of his 600 business students cheated on a midterm exam. In another, a writer with the pseudonym Ed Dante explained to the Chronicle of Higher Education the process by which custom-paper services provide untraceable documents for students to turn in, an opportunity to cheat with impunity for those with the cash to hand over.
What struck me about both of these pieces is that the students at CFU and Ed Dante seem to think of themselves as occupying some intelligible moral space, and the teachers reacting to the stories think of them as occupying an entirely different but nonetheless intelligible space. In Ed Dante’s case he seemed to think himself a victim of a corrupt system dedicated to grades exclusive of education even as he thrilled as he described professors whom he regularly fooled. The same professors regard him as a pimp and a fraud, two groups of people who do not fare nearly as well as others in Dante’s divine economy. In the case of Central Florida, ABC news clips of the story (unavailable at the time of writing) featured sound-bites from students (pardon the spelling–I never do know which spelling of sound-bites to use) saying, among other things, that all students cheat and that it’s not fair to penalize those students who happen to have been caught cheating. One student even referred to the event as a “witch hunt.” The professor upon whose exam the students cheated described the event as something that made him wonder whether higher education were worth anything at all.
Friends of mine who have spread both of these stories via Facebook and in other media have lamented, growled, and done all of the other things that rightly go along with moral outrage. I run with several college teachers, after all. But very few have stated what should be obvious to us all: this is precisely what one should expect given Plato’s warnings against a democratic mindset.
Plato on the Desires for Good, Goods, and Consumption
By serendipity or by providence, I was teaching the following section of Republic to a group of freshmen when these stories were “going viral” among my fellow academics, and I could not help but note the precision with which Plato lays out a cultural and (anti-)intellectual framework within which these phenomena make sense:
‘… the pursuit of freedom makes it increasingly normal for fathers and sons to swap places: others are afraid of their sons, and sons no longer feel shame for the parents are spending all of them. And it starts to make no difference whether one is a citizen or a resident alien, or even a visitor from abroad: everyone is at the same level.’
‘Yes, that happens,’ [Glaucon or Adeimantus–I never can remember] said.
‘Those are the most important cases,’I said, ‘but there are others. In these circumstances, for example, teachers are afraid of their pupils and curry favor with them, while people despise their teachers and attendance as well. In short, the younger generation starts to look like the older generation, and they turn any conversation or action into a trial of strength with their elders; meanwhile, the older members of the community adapt themselves to the younger ones, whose frivolity and charm, and model their behavior on that of the young, because they don’t want to be thought disagreeable tyrants.’ (Republic 563 a-b)
Plato’s vision of democracy is, of course, a dark one: it’s a system within which the pursuits of momentary pleasures override reason, civic pride, and even those desires associated with good, honest money-making. All that remains is a horde of people, sponging off of the labors of the genuinely useful, waiting for anyone to come along and promise more pleasure for less work. And with my democratic sympathies, I find his account somewhat uncomfortable. But no matter what one thinks of popular election of public officials, if the mentality that governs democratic political communities comes as well to govern an educational system, the hierarchy that makes education intelligible gives way, and it only makes sense for students to achieve the ends of education, as defined by a consumerist (or democratic, to use Plato’s terms) system, by any means that are allowable within that system. In the world that these students and Ed Dante inhabit, that pretty well includes whatever means do not get one caught. A woman or man who purports to be a teacher within the system is little more to the student, morally speaking, than a pitcher is to a hitter or a linebacker to a tailback, except that the linebacker or pitcher does not live in fear of end-of-season evaluations filled out by hitters and tailbacks. In that moral universe any efforts to “get grades” stand to be judged simply by effectiveness or failure, and teachers and our support staff are people who bar their own equals (remember, the democratic assumption is that nobody is “greater than” anyone else) from getting to the ends of the project.
Since teachers appear already to be enjoying those fruits of “success,” those of us who investigate such attempts at fraud are no more, in that system, than hoarders, determining arbitrarily who is “in” and who is “out,” and any among those ranks who attempts to articulate some sort of moral syllogism about why cheating is, in that system, wrong, the response is swift: these old teachers just don’t get the point of college. There is no intelligible moral reason for any student to regard the teacher as anything different than a particularly nasty goalkeeper, someone who attempts to block the trickier shots from going in the goal, and who then declares that some rule has been violated when the shooter scores. Within the rules of democracy-according-to-Plato, the teacher/police’s success and the student/trickster’s success are no more than conflicting goals. And when one shoots at goals, trick shots do not occupy a place on a moral continuum so much as they represent one set of morally neutral means to a pair of agreed-upon and conflicting ends.
I take this essay in this direction with some hesitation because I know that some of my friends and beloved colleagues are quite enamored of what they would call perhaps anti-authoritarian or postmodern pedagogy, the sort of teaching that presumes correctly that students are mortal just as teachers are but wrongly concludes from that premise that no hierarchy can stand between teacher and student. I know that I’m going to sound somewhat monstrous to some ears when I write this, but I assert nonetheless. Teachers must in real ways stand superior to their students if we are to maintain the culture of college teaching as the tradition has handed it down to us. An intelligible case that such behaviors as commissioning essays rather than writing them or downloading and distributing exam answers is anything but one more valid tactic assumes that, at the outset of one’s education, the professor stands as ontologically superior to the student. And when that hierarchy does not stand at the outset, the cheating that follows only makes sense. What students and teachers alike sometimes ignore is that such a fundamental difference of philosophies will necessarily make the enterprise of education absurd unless one gives way to the other.
Whose Grades? Which Transcripts?
The ethical logic that governs the college classroom is larger than any given phenomenon of cheating. Two narratives seem to govern that space and the practice of assigning grades, one of them rooted in individualism (or democracy, if one prefers to stick with Plato’s terms) and the other in a conservative vision of community life (or aristocracy, in Plato’s terms). In one narrative, a student “needs to get an A” because the purpose of the classroom is to advance the student towards graduate programs, jobs, and other pursuits that have as their price of admission a currency measured not in U.S. dollars but GPA points. In the other narrative, the grade is a professor’s good-faith account of a student’s performance for the sake of constructing a truthful story of the same student’s career within an institution. These transcripts (to coin a term) are not the sum total of education but merely one device by which people less familiar with a student can tell quickly how the student fared when attempting the tasks that a given class, and a range of classes, required of all present in the class or classes.
If the former story governs a human being’s interactions within a classroom, then obtaining the requisite “currency” becomes a game of risk and reward: if one gets caught, the institution takes away the currency, and if one does not, one gains more currency in exchange for work that the goalie did not anticipate the shooter doing, work that might well translate into future adventures in gaming other systems. If the latter story frames the moment of cheating, then the cheater becomes one who negates the possibility of true accounts, rendering the teacher, who stands in the position of excellence, incapable of telling the truth about which students are approaching the standards of excellence internal to the community and which ones have, at this point in the story, misidentified where their strengths lie and either need to rededicate themselves to the pursuits of the community or find another avenue by which they might serve the relevant human community. In other words, “I need this grade to be an A” is unintelligible in the aristocratic system just as much as “the world might be better if you kept the grade that I assigned” is unintelligible to the individualist/democrat.
My own working conviction is that higher-level, liberal education really should be the sort of training that the community offers to those with the most real potential for good public influence. In other words, as much as I’m an Athenian democrat in matters of the state, I’m a Platonic elitist when it comes to education. I can point to centuries of educational tradition that agree with me on this, and although I know that many readers have already branded me “reactionary” and tuned me out, I teach where I do, in an institution that admits students who would not have a fighting chance at the elite institutions (and I consider most state universities to be those sorts of institutions) precisely because we believe that the system as it stands misses many of those who have the most potential to be women and men of influence. Therefore my own outrage at Ed Dante and at the cheaters at CFU stems not from the fact that “my team” is “losing” the game of hide-the-diploma but because I still believe that higher education exists not for its own sake but for the sake of a larger community. That particular sort of benefit has at its root a set of aristocratic assumptions, namely that some human beings have over the years acquired a real and intelligible range of human goods alternately called wisdom, expertise, and learning; and that inherent inequality between teacher and student can and should have the erotic force (in the old Platonic sense) to draw students upward, inspiring them to emulate those professors whom they admire and to supplant those whom they despise.
For what it’s worth, I’m fully behind those who want to attempt experimental communities, intellectual and ecclesiastical and otherwise. If somebody wanted to take a day job and spend the evenings facilitating a fully-democratic Emergent church or a fully-democratic thinkers’ circle, that’s just great. But in contexts that pass along transcripts and promise students that professors will teach them, to deny hierarchy just seems like a bad-faith position that’s inherently open to the morality of gamesmanship. My own working assumption, the assumption of aristocracy, is that students must rise in their relationships to their teachers, not assume a prior and all-consuming equality, and to cheat within this context is to betray the institution and the larger community. The open secret is that every professor worth anything at all longs for the day when student supplants teacher, taking the future of the community in directions that the teacher is incapable of imagining. But a system corrupted by widespread cheating stands to ruin all chances of anything like that happening. I stand behind CFU’s Dr. Quinn and all of the teachers who have been the victims of frauds like Ed Dante precisely because they render what ought to be a vocation in behalf of a community unintelligible, the worst sort of attack that one could imagine on an ancient and good way of life.
As I’m sure more than one web-writer has noted, these sorts of event is always a mirror of sorts–the emotional reaction, and perhaps even more whether one sides with the cheaters or with those cheated, is fairly predictable based on the prior philosophical and ethical convictions that one brings to the event. My response, of course, is no exception to this. But I do invite comments, conversation, and alternative theories to my own.