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The Shadow Scholar (chronicle.com)
233 points by harscoat 2504 days ago | hide | past | web | 109 comments | favorite

Has modern education become so jaded that it now plays out as farce, where learning is not the goal but gaming the system is?

I vividly remember the slackers of my generation (college/law school in the 1970s). They took the basket-weaving classes on the cynical assumption that it was a short-cut to getting an "easy A." They padded their papers with junk - that is, whenever they couldn't avoid having to do a paper. They feared the demanding teachers and ran from them. They continually looked for outline-level materials (Cliff notes, Gilberts law summaries) by which they could try to cram for a test without really having to master any of the materials. In short, they did everything possible to avoid having to think or work at the process of learning and, hence, they graduated, if at all, miles behind the hard-working students in their ability to think or to work as they turned to face real-world challenges.

I have never understood this mind-set. For me, the challenge was always to take on the harder challenges if that meant developing either your substantive knowledge or your skills in writing, analyzing, communicating, or whatever. Wasn't that the point of being there, after all?

The one precious commodity you have as a student that you will likely never have again is the privilege of being able to devote large blocks of uninterrupted time to diving into any given area and mastering it. Once you get into the real world, it is very difficult, if not impossible, ever to have that resource available to you again.

Whatever you do, don't squander this resource but, instead, use it to advantage. You will sacrifice in the short term as you watch your friends party away while you slave away, but you will develop depth of knowledge and habits of discipline that will endure for a lifetime while those who choose to cut corners, sadly, will not.

Cheating does have its victims. Those who cheat, however, will one day realize that the primary victim of that cheating is none other than they themselves. Caveat discipulus!

"Has modern education become so jaded that it now plays out as farce, where learning is not the goal but gaming the system is?"

In a word, yes.

You see, education, for most people, is NOT about learning. It's about getting a job.

We HN types value learning for its own sake, and would happily curl up with a copy of SICP or TAOCP and feel content. The average person wants the whole thing to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible. In the words of some of my classmates, concerning cheating:

"Better to cheat than to repeat."

or perhaps more poignantly:

"Don't be a hero and get zero."

We, my dear grellas, are not normal.

> "You see, education, for most people, is NOT about learning. It's about getting a job."

That is exactly true. But I challenge that "learning for its own sake" is not normal; rather, the educational system is atrocious in its ability to foster "learning" in kids who never experienced truly mastering something in the first place.

I daresay that the sense of accomplishment from solving a problem or truly learning something is a universal human response. The problem lies with the educational system.

I don't think it is reasonable to lay this at the feet of the education system. In fact, it is somewhat difficult to lay this at the feet of any system, to be honest. It is a systemic failure of both the system, and the people who depend upon it to do either what they can't do, or what they wish not to do.

As for the system encouraging people to get a job, it is just responding to popular sentiment. The gauge people use for evaluating any educational system, public or private, is the number of people who move along to the next step of a pre-determined timeline. If you are in secondary school, you move on to college; if you are in college, you move on to employment. It's not that the schools want people to not learn, it's that the people who rely on the schools don't care if the schools foster this attitude. It's not that we are actively trained to be beholden to the executives of society; it's that we apathetically punt to them, because we just don't give enough of a damn, or believe that it is worth giving a damn. You have to believe something is worth caring about before you will expend energy to care about. It just isn't that important to us, as a general population, because we believe it won't make a fucking difference anyway. So we punt, and so do the schools.

I daresay that the sense of accomplishment from solving a problem or truly learning something is a universal human response.

It may be, but never underestimate the power of socialization in general upon any sort of universal human response. There are so many things we have elevated to the level of faux pas; is it really such a stretch to believe that demonstrated learning could not be elevated to the same level?

It is easy to cast aspersion at the system, but it is worth digging several levels of implication deep, and seeing how much of the system is just a reflection of ourselves.

You have to believe something is worth caring about before you will expend energy to care about. I completely agree with this, but I think this is something the educational system should be able to impart.

There are so many things we have elevated to the level of faux pas; is it really such a stretch to believe that demonstrated learning could not be elevated to the same level? What exactly do you mean by this?

I think you're right in that the system reflects popular sentiment, but I also think it's cyclical in that regard. Popular sentiment about the educational system as a whole is as a result of the experiences the majority had with the system.

As far as a reflection of ourselves -- how did we get here? and do you think it could be changed? Perhaps it's naive, but I can't imagine why people wouldn't care. Maybe not about the system itself, but it seems backwards not to care about "learning" - isn't this contrary to humanity and human development for the last thousand-ish years?

I completely agree with this, but I think this is something the educational system should be able to impart.

By the time the schools get access to a kid, he's already had years to learn from his parents to value or to not value learning.

And we, in turn, are a reflection of the meta-system: industrialization. If we didn't punt—if everyone went out and tried to become an entrepreneur, or a classical musician, or a game designer, to their taste, and nobody ever gave up on their dreams, just said "meh" and took a job at McDonald's or slinging Java code or picking up trash—then our society wouldn't run. The industrial society—the society that manages to generate extreme levels of wealth in scarcity—is built on the backs of those who are willing to just stand around and let others get rich at their expense. The "losers," in other words.[1]

[1] http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-o...

"It's not that the schools want people to not learn, it's that the people who rely on the schools don't care if the schools foster this attitude."

Which is indeed a curious thing, given how much money they place on the line in all those jobs with a minimum degree attached to them. Are they just looking to employ only the successful liars and cheaters, and weed out the less competent ones?

Upvoted. I see your point.

Question for you: Is there any way it could be different, given the constraints the education system faces, such as limited time, untalented teachers, and the human need to quantify?

That's a very good question, and one I think everyone needs to be asking.

I can't claim to be an expert on education, but we can all speak from experience. Being currently in the educational system, I honestly think it's about inspiration vs. motivation. The current system is fairly good at motivating students, but this is on a superficial level - grades, getting into a good college/job, or the threat of failure. In general, though, I can't say that I've really been inspired to learn, apart from a few teachers whom I deeply respect. The crucial difference between the 2 - motivation only works as long as the motivator is there, and people have no problem with cheating. Inspiration is what drives people, and what education is missing.

So where does inspiration come from? Both internally and externally - the intrinsic value or joy of learning, and being able to apply what we learn to life. I think there are 2 places where real improvement could be seen:

TL;DR - In short, I think we need to develop internal inspiration when students are young, and then tie that into external inspiration as we get older.

1. Childhood education - Learning is something that really needs to be made fun, and internalized. I think that this is where most people gain an initial passion for learning. There is an intrinsic joy to truly learning something or solving a problem, but we need to teach perseverance - there was some study which showed that, given an impossible problem, U.S. students spent far less time on it than some students from other countries. Anecdotally, though, we tend to give up too easily; most of the rewards are from completion, but we never get there in the first place. We need to show our kids both the value in challenging yourself and also the value in the end result. I think a large part of this comes from parents and your home environment, rather than formalized education.

2. Middle/HS - Most of us have that one teacher that really inspired us. I think we need to look for teachers that may not be great at teaching, but rather are visionaries and are able to inspire. In the end, all of us learn in different ways, and arguably a lot of it is done outside of the classroom. Especially given the problem of limited time, teachers need to in inspire students first, and teach second - if a student wants to learn, they will, regardless of their resources or environment. Granted, that's hyperbole, but think about the lengths you go to if you really want to do something. The best teachers are the ones that are truly passionate about what they teach, and are able to impart that on the students. We need to show students that what they are learning has real value, and can be applied to whatever the student is interested in.

You make what you measure, and usually, you can only measure a few things often enough to really make a difference. So, you need to be damn certain you pick the right metrics ahead of time, otherwise you will end up with nothing near what you want.

So, what are our metrics. As a few examples:

1. The graduation rate of the student body. 2. Standardized test scores. 3. Rates of subsequent employment after graduation. 4. Salary of subsequent employment. 5. The relative prestige of the employing companies.

What we are measuring here is the rate by which people default, and with the expressed goal that we maximize these. What we actually want to end up maximizing is a meta-level or two up from these metrics, but what we've come up with so far is measuring a set of consequences that might kind of indicate that we are maximizing what we actually want. Of course, we forget that these implications only go one way. What we may end up maximizing might have the same symptoms as our goal.

The other question really becomes how you develop a metric to gauge "curiosity". It's really quite subjective, but it is something we would have to do if we'd want to maximize it to any appreciable degree.

Here's my thoughts about this. In the large, it just isn't possible. Psychological motivation is not a multiple-choice test. In order to know someone is curious, you have to expose them to situations that will bring that sort of curiosity out. What you'd need to do is observe and interact with someone, and gauge their reaction to stimuli that would bring about curiosity.

But even then, once you start measuring it, how do you maximize it within a collective? Is it even possible to change the frame of mind of a collective of people? There are 25 of them with a frame of mind they come into the school system with from their parents, and there is one of you telling them that their collective sense of reality isn't the only perspective available. False consciousness is hard enough to overcome one-on-one.

I really think it has to be a grassroots process, if it is going to work at all. You need to convince your friends who don't already believe it that it is worth having faith in continuous learning as a net benefit to one's life. Then they can pass this frame of mind down to their children, who will hopefully become numerous enough eventually that the positive feedback loop starts.

How to do that is left as an exercise to the reader; I've made a difference in the perspectives of a few people, but I have no idea which argument or combination of arguments I made worked. I don't think I could know, to be honest.

No, but for far more general reasons than you're explicating. Large-scale systems, like education, are borne of incentives, not single decisions here or there. No matter what little initiatives you try to foist upon them, they reach a new dynamic equilibrium that's just as bad in some other way, because they are incentivized to do so in some way.

According to Robin Hanson, the incentives the school system has are to make children more obedient to non-empathetic authority (people who haven't personally proved themselves as being worth following, but rather just hold positions of power), and to teach self-control: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/08/functions-of-school.ht...

Both of these functions have been "absorbed" into the education system, not through any explicitly-stated goals, but rather by setting the incentives. Teachers must grade; children must pass. Therefore, children will be compared by their grades, and learn to feel like they can be, on the whole, quantified and valuated—in other words, objectivized.

One thing that would help is if people like the author in this article looked at this a chance to mentor or tutor students who weren't getting it rather than perpetuating the problem by doing their work for them.

My wife, who has a grand total of four degrees (two undergrad, two postgrad) as well as a number of difficult to get professional qualifications jokes about it as "collecting the badges" - she is serious about learning but has no illusions about how these things are viewed by others.

I think everyone values learning for its own sake to some degree; however, they value having a job more. If you were guaranteed a job whether or not you did well in school (not that that's a good idea), I think a lot more people would venture to actually challenge themselves in classes, because it would be a game (i.e. low stakes) rather than a trial.

Has modern education become so jaded that it now plays out as farce, where learning is not the goal but gaming the system is?...I have never understood this mind-set.

There is a certain degree of faith needed to want to make progress toward some distant and difficult goal. If you don't believe the rewards are going to be there when you complete the journey, there is really no point in even starting down.

The two rewards I can immediately think of with respect to learning are: the ability to approach the problems you find in life with a deeper and more enlightened understanding, and as a result are in a better position to generate a lot of value for humanity; and the feeling of satisfaction from having gained understanding into something that isn't trivial. You have to believe one or both of these things will happen before you start, otherwise you'd being doing something difficult for no reason at all.

The reason why it seems beyond my comprehension, and perhaps the reason why it feels beyond your comprehension as well, is that there are people who don't believe this. They think that there is no sense of enlightenment at the end of learning, or that this sense of enlightenment isn't worth the effort. They think that whatever they end up learning will be of no practical value, and that it is only practical things that hold value to people in general.

They believe, quite honestly, that learning will get them right back to where they are now, except for the practical value of the sheet of paper they receive at the end.

In short, I think people, if they ever had it, have lost the faith. It doesn't matter what you learn, so you should make the process of running in circles on as flat a plot of ground as possible.

The difference, at least for me, is that I haven't yet lost the faith. I see value in learning, both in an intrinsic sense of accomplishment, and a societal effect of being able to make a bigger impact on things people use. The positive feedback loop is there now; unfortunately, it has been with me for so long, I can't actually recall what got it started.

If the positive feedback loop doesn't start though, the lack of it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You end up in social groups where learning is discouraged, and where things that are practical now are much more valued. Once you fall in with the social group that fits your point of view, it takes quite a revelation to reach escape velocity from the same.

So, this comes down to yet another question, which I still don't know the answer to: how do you motivate people to take an example as part of a more fundamental truth, rather than an exception that proves their point of view? I wonder if it involves forcefully weaning them from the teat they've discovered the more intelligent amongst us are willing to provide and for far less of a cost than the value people get out of it.

I really wonder, as I did in another comment on this article, how much of this is really a product of past behaviors of those of us who love to learn. It seems as though we thought positive reinforcement is the answer; maybe we should revisit that.

That's why educational institutes were originally religious. The further away they get from religion the less people think the abstract knowledge is actually practical.

See John Newman.

Keep in mind who buys his stuff: Mostly people who don't have "the privilege of being able to devote large blocks of uninterrupted time to diving into any given area and mastering it". If you work full time and go to school, and possibly have a family, you're forced to go to school for career, not learning.

I spent five years teaching at the University level. The beginning of the end of my academic career was receiving an e-mail from a student explaining one of my (programming) assignments and asking if they could write this one too. To me this was an obvious case of VERY incorrectly choosing the "to" address for an e-mail.

I immediately contacted my department head and was ready to apply the school's academic dishonesty policy, which would lead to--at least--failure of the course. It didn't happen. The student came up with a lame excuse, I was chided for harassing the student, and it was all swept under the rug. I was tempted to resign in protest, but kept with it for two more years before quietly leaving academics.

I enjoy teaching, I think I'm good at it and my students tended to agree. Unfortunately, I can't make myself teach in the current educational system here in the US.

A resounding upvote.

I only taught for 2 years as a graduate teaching assistant, but we were told in training to never accuse anyone of cheating ever. It opened the university up to being sued, and made everyone's life more complicated.

I guess this particular part has never greatly bothered me about academia, though plenty of things are quite broken and bother me.

I mainly value whatever education takes place, not the formalities, so if someone who doesn't deserve it gets a degree, who cares? I can see that for people who care about the value of the pieces of paper, it's important to keep unqualified people from getting them. I just can't bring myself to care that much about that, though. To me the important question is whether people who want to learn are able to; not whether people who don't want to learn slip through or don't slip through.

The much bigger failing in my mind isn't that cheaters aren't sufficiently punished, but that motivated students who want to learn things other than exactly what they're assigned are given virtually no assistance, and often actively discouraged (the side-projects-are-bad, keep-your-head-down-and-do-what-you're-told mentality).

It matters more when the credential is used in licensing a difficult and socially important function like medical care, though. I think people were undestandably up in arms a while back about the institutions which were giving out fake degrees.

Different perspective though, from an academics point of view that does make an effort to reach out to students and teach them well this cheating would be disheartening.

I can see that, but I'm an academic myself, and somehow it doesn't bother me much (it does bother many of my colleagues).

I guess I'm most strongly motivated by providing assistance and resources to people who want to learn, so whatever happens with the people who don't want to learn doesn't bother me that much. I'll enforce whatever rules I have to, to the extent the institution provides me a means to do so (and requires me to), but it just isn't a big motivator for me.

I would prefer the proportion of students who are there to learn to be higher (it'd be a more enjoyable and motivating environment), but I don't think being more of a hardass on cheating is going to solve that problem. It's probably true that there are students who, while tempted to cheat, would be great students if they were scared away from that temptation by vigorous enforcement. My guess is that number is fairly small, though.

I think most of the people who cheat are the kind of student who doesn't really want to be in this major at all, but feels they need to get this degree to get a job. I think vigorous enforcement with those students, even if it successfully stamps out cheating, will just result in a bunch of students grudgingly doing the work because they now have no choice. But that kind of student still isn't that fun to teach, so my motivation to expend more effort than I have to on converting "cheaters" into "grudging teeth-gritters" is pretty low.

I'm sorry to be a pain, but by not punishing the cheating 'free riders', you are pushing the cost of those free riders onto the good students.

The value of of the good students' education is eroded by poor quality of the cheaters.

Sounds similar the story about a week ago where are professor is being disciplined for recommending that a grad student's degree be revoked, because the student did not meet the requirements.

Robin Hanson from OvercomingBias says it best: School isn't about learning:


I was a lab instructor for one of my favorite professors after excelling in his class. I caught one of his students cheating blatantly (assembly code was nearly identical to another students, just shifted around a bit)

The professor is a good man, and was very upset. It was almost kind of sad, he was angry but it was almost like he could've alternatively started tearing up at any moment. Damn administration didn't do anything about it though, and that very student I caught cheating has since been in several classes with me. Burns me up.

Guess it shouldn't surprise me that the prof. hasn't had any courses for several quarters now. I swear, the good ones don't seem to last. The only one we've got left in the department that cares about the students, I'm not even sure how he manages.

I am involved with a startup working on this problem (http://GuruFi.com).

Fundamentally this problem is derives from the fact that it is difficult for people to learn how to write and structure their ideas. Hell thats basically the whole point of PhD programs, and people spend years finishing them.

With the internet, it becomes really easy to just pay someone else who already knows how to write to do the work for you.

The only real solution to this that I see is to make these services legitimate as a teaching outlet rather than as a cheating outlet. Force people to write a draft. In editing, don't rewrite, just comment and give people feedback as to how they can improve the structure of their document. In general have the people feel that they are getting taught rather than just getting a product.

My hope is that creating a legitimate service will encroach the market people like this target, and will actually force students to learn something through their writing assignments.

This seems like a great service. The world is moving more and more towards using English as a universal language, and I think that plenty of non-native speakers are at a disadvantage, because they cannot communicate their ideas well enough. For example, of the best-selling business authors, how many are non-native English speakers? I bet not that many. That means that English speakers have a disproportionate influence.

It looks more like an essay-writing service than a educational service to me.

Two of the reviews of the #1 "Editor/Tutor" http://www.gurufi.com/editor/brian, don't seems to reflect students who learned anything about writing their own coherent sentences:

* "He knows what I want to say more than I do. Thank you for your clear and professional writing. "

* "It was the second to have you edit my article, and it was also the second to feel so surprised when I read it! Thank you!"

The #2 "editor" has a similarly uninspiring review:

*"Simply, Josh is a perfect. I got revision from him until I satisfied. I'm so happy with his revision. Additionally, his comments are very constructive to me. I learned about writing SoP from him. Thanks a lot Josh. "

About three-quarters of the reviews seem generically unoffensive, but many of them are cause for concern.

I don't think getting writers only from the top 20 uni will work.

I wouldn't like my high school paper to be edited by a grad student at an Ivey League college

This is something we are doing just in the beginning to build credibility.

Once we are a little more established we plan on being less selective with our editors and letting the market decide who the great people are.

The best people to do this work will be someone who has just passed (or is working on) a level high than that. A high school lab report can be much better drafted by a undergrad freshmen than a grad student as he has done this recently and is much more connected with it while the grad student has elevated in terms of language and lowest common denominator of knowledge in any subject. They also tend to forget the basics somehow.

I agree completely. For this reason, there are undergraduate students, grad students, and professionals on the site.

We simply require that they attend a top 20 school at this point. This is mostly so that customers know that all editors meet that baseline measure of credibility (i.e. they made it through the same process that the applicant is pursuing, and thus probably know what it takes).

Umm.. I don't think they need to meet that baseline measure of credibility. What about a home schooled kid who made it into one of those colleges?

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.

What's scary is how far the lazy rich kid will be able to go with this, with a promising career in management. I wouldn't want to work for someone like this, but it is easy to imagine him being very effective. (For all I know I could have worked under one of these before, and not even hated it.)

Managing effectively is more about people skills than education.

So, I guess you could just pick up an illiterate guy with good people skills to run a large corporation or be the president?

Yep, pretty much. As long as he can talk with experts and understand their position he can lead.

Yep, I can personally attest that a director at one large corporation has a BOUGHT undergraduate degree, and no other education.

He inherited the position from the hardworking founder through being extremely good at people skills and corporate backstabbing (he should have a degree in that :) ). It saddens me and makes me a bit more cynical every time I see him.

The corporation survives because these monsters are mostly self-sustaining, and those at lower levels do the actual work (I wouldn't give it a chance if some disruption came along, though).

I can churn out four or five pages an hour.

I'm utterly fascinated, is it really possible to produce that much text on an unknown subject? I write maximum about 1 page of academic text per workday. That is of course real, and contains a significant amount of math, but still producing the amount of material mentioned in the article consistently is very impressive. I wonder if one way to improve writing skills would be to produce this kind of massive levels of output. Maybe that is a key benefit of blogging.

On a more serious note, I think a key benefit for computer science as an academic discipline is that much work is published in conference articles, rather than journals as in most other fields. This means that computer scientists must be able to communicate complicated ideas on 8 pages, rather than 30-40. It really forces the communication to be terse and efficient. I've done course assignments together with people who only publish in journals and it's amazing how these people can blabber on for ages. We had a maximum page length of 20 pages, which left about 3 pages per author. I was very puzzled when some people wrote 6 pages of stuff which I could have easily expressed in 1.5 pages without any loss of clarity, but I'm blaming the culture of their fields, where many words are better than few, and no hard limits are imposed.

I'm utterly fascinated, is it really possible to produce that much text on an unknown subject?

Yes: journalists do this routinely.

My family's business does grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies. We routinely write on subjects that we initially know nothing about; we described some of that process in a post about writing Department of Energy grants: http://blog.seliger.com/2009/04/05/doe/ .

Granted, this is not "academic text," exactly, and neither is journalism. But neither is what the guy cited is doing; he's really just regurgitating stuff that sounds okay. This works surprisingly well surprisingly far into the educational system.

I wonder if one way to improve writing skills would be to produce this kind of massive levels of output. Maybe that is a key benefit of blogging.

You could, if you wanted to. The "want" is the key part here, and the skill is not as easy as it sounds: it took me many years to be able to write proposals efficiently and synthesize unknown information efficiently.

It seems to me that if one becomes a professor, a very big chunk of one's time goes into writing grant applications. All of that is "wasted time", in the sense that it takes time away from the primary goal of making good research. In the private sector one would hire separate people to perform this kind of support functions, but in academia that is often impossible. For these reasons, even being able to synthesize known information efficiently would be a very useful skill in this line of work.

It could very well be a case of quantity leading to quality. http://www.lifeclever.com/what-50-pounds-of-clay-can-teach-y...

"Over the years, I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I'll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph."

I almost find this more depressing than the rampant cheating in which this author engages.

> I'm utterly fascinated, is it really possible to produce that much text on an unknown subject?

If it's anything like the reports I wrote for my own humanities classes, you can skim a bunch of relevant materials and churn something out in a rather short time. That said, you're much better off if you can wrangle things around to write about something you already know.

I seem to recall that for one class, I managed to get out of some weekly writing assignment by turning it into one huge paper about a topic I had already read about. I then wrote it for about 10 hours straight (naturally, the last 12 hours before the assignment was due...) and had an ~80 page paper freshly printed out and in my hand just in time for class.

My teacher loved it and asked to be able to use it as a class reading assignment in the future. It was a first draft, hastily written brain dump of everything I had ever known about the subject. But there was no need to pad out my writing to fill pages and I think that's why my teacher liked it.

It's far easier to write four to five pages of bullshit than to sit there, come up with creative thoughts, then think about how you would say it, back it up with citations, and then condense it for 8 page papers.

Four to five pages of crap is pretty easy. Like the author said, all you need is a toolbox from the "style guide" of bullshit.

I'm utterly fascinated, is it really possible to produce that much text on an unknown subject

I write SEO articles for some pocket money. I do not really know what I am writing but churn out 2000 words in a hour or so. I know SEO articles is not close to a academic paper, but just to illustrate.

What is your writing process like? Do you edit a lot, or just write it in one go? I notice with the academic articles I'm involved in, that they are edited to death by the separate authors. Comments are often good, but sometimes I feel that when everything is edited many times, the coherence of the first (sloppy) version is often lost.

I just get the keyword from my contractor (who in turn gets it from hi clients) and then google the term. If it is common enough there will be a wikipedia, ask.com or wikihow page. I just use that info. I can take a sentence in those websites and churn out 100-150 words on it. Its really easy to bloat articles (planning a blog post on all this).

I have also produced on academic paper (it was a position paper) and I instinctively avoided editing. I believe when you start editing a paper you often cut out the depth of the idea.

Interestingly, that was one of Robert Heinlein's pointers for writers; Don't re-write except to an editor's requests (quote from memory).

Most telling quote: As long as it doesn't require me to do any math, I will write anything.

Maybe the "shadow scholars" that do know math are too busy with their even better-paid assignments (supply vs. demand, after all) to interview with the Chronicle.

Maybe the "shadow scholars" that do know math are too busy with their even better-paid assignments

I think that opportunists with those abilities went to work for Wall Street. Some people call them quants. I suspect it's much more lucrative than any crumb gathering around academia.

Math shadow scholars probably don't pay well. Most of my math courses had a large fraction of the grade based on an in class test, not homework.

You know, maybe after I finish my Ph. D. in maths, I can go on to become the "Shadow Scholar" for online math courses.


That actually kind of sounds like fun.

Something tells me you'd manage to sell about one problem set per assignment.

Live by the sword, die by the sword :-)

Why is there such a large focus on writing long essays in US education?

When I went to "high school" in Sweden, I can't ever remembering having to write an essay as homework in any subject. Some tests in some subjects could have essay answers, but that would basically amount to writing half a page or so about something specific. Of course we did have essay writing as part of the Swedish subject, but actually writing them was always done in school, as an exam, i.e. sit down for three hours and write. And the grading of our essays were never on length, it was always on grammar, spelling, style, form and coherency.

University was largely the same. Granted, being a CS major you're expected to write a lot more code than essays. I took a few courses that had essays as part of the requirements such as technical writing and history of technology, but those were outliers, and not the norm. I mean, my Master's thesis was "only" 45 pages, and again, the professor was a lot more interested in it being coherent, correct, and actually saying something, rather than being long.

So what's the point of long essays in every subject? To me, it seems like that will just make students write a lot of voluminous bullshit without ensuring that they actually learn what they write about?

I was a double major in Communications and American Studies in my first go-around at an undergrad degree. It's not so much the fact that essays are necessarily the problem, but the expectation of length as the ultimate point of the exercise--from professors and students--that causes confusion.

As a writer, I hate filling prose with word soup just to fill space, but early in college I often ended up writing in 15 words what could be said in 5. By my junior year, I stopped caring about meeting the length requirements and focused on solid research and arguments in my papers.

Most profs didn't seem to dock me for it when I showed competence in the subject matter. Those that did were reasonable after speaking with them about it.

But, that's the difference between me and the people that hire ghostwriters. I made it clear to my teachers I was there to learn and grow, regardless of many of the arbitrary milestones and requirements. I was there for the journey. People who enter university simply to pass through a series of checkpoints on their way to an end goal focus entirely on the end goal of getting a degree (and presumably shortly thereafter, a job) rather than getting an education.

In one of the first writing classes I took in college, the professor said on the first day "You have just spent your high school years finding ways to add words and fill more pages. In this class, you will learn to take them out."

The length of every assignment was exactly 1 page.

In my experience, the number of words you write can be a reasonable proxy for the depth and intricacy of the argument. Granted, I also attend one of the best (if not the best) undergrad universities in the US, so this may only be true for a small subset of the college population.

Probably the most crucial factor in having a strong correlation between a high word count requirement and the depth of research needed to write that many words is having discerning grader who will penalize bullshit.

There are still some tricks you can play to make your paper look (slightly) longer--like not using contractions.

Most college classes don't require much writing, which is one reason most people write so poorly. If you want to become a good, or even reasonably competent, writer you need to practice. That is one thing that all of the books on self-education emphasize - get practice writing, especially write lots of short papers.

To a very limited extent, schools have tried to protect themselves from such cheating by requiring students (or prospective students) to compose writing samples under controlled conditions.

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT), for instance, requires students to write an essay. The essay is not scored; rather, it is forwarded to the schools to which the student has applied. The schools then compare the LSAT essay to the personal statement submitted with the student's application. A gross disparity between the quality of writing seen on the LSAT essay and that on the personal statement presumably raises suspicions that the personal statement was ghostwritten.

Perhaps such measures should be implemented more widely.

While this is an interesting way of comparing, I'd be slightly worried if I were applying to law school. Given that you have a limited amount of time to write your LSAT essay, and an essentially unlimited amount of time to write and polish your personal statement (plus have professors, friends and family look over it), I could see there being a large but legitimate gap between the two.

Perhaps it's not as great as I think though.

There are style markers (the writer's voice) that are in the paper no matter how it is edited. This is how critics and editors can tell when a book is written by the real author and when it is ghostwritten. The only way it's possible to avoid this is to digest a lot of material by the original author so you learn to become that voice.

This is also prevalent in song lyrics. You can hear when a rapper, for example, is using their own material rather than a ghostwriters. The flow and definition will be really different.

This is why I like HN so much---the entire culture is aimed at getting rich by startup, which is a mercilessly meritocratic process. It's extremely focused on what can you do?

An hour spent hacking to make something useful or cool is never a wasted hour. But wouldn't it suck to realize that you spent years in grad school without even learning anything?

In any case, this sort of news---the rise of cheating---is both good news and bad news for founders. The good is that your competitors are probably hiring these people. Especially so for folks like AirBnB who are competing with hotel chains, etc.

The bad, of course, is that when hiring, you might run into people like this. But if your hiring process>your competitor's process, then this is very much a net gain for you.

...the entire culture is aimed at getting rich by startup, which is a mercilessly meritocratic process.

I think the entire culture is aimed at a much broader motivation than that. It is aimed at a culture of intense intellectual curiosity, which makes the community self-selecting in meritocratic way.

This carries into startups as well, because they are as much about what you can learn as what you can do. Presumably, most startups are exploring at least some uncharted territory. How curious you are about that territory will suggest how much you can learn from it, and what you can learn from it will certainly have an effect on how well you execute.

As a result, startups end up as one of the primary focusses of the culture, but I think this as much a byproduct as it is an end to itself.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

Parents, government, and everybody in between seem focused on pushing as many young people into university education as possible. But it seems to me that we have pushed them too hard if they are cheating on this scale. Lots of them just don’t belong there.

I imagine a fantasy future world in which ageing professors tell stories of the dark ages of their early careers; a time in which most of their students were not really interested in the subject of their degrees. A brave new world in which young people who might like to get a job, start a business, write a book, or just study independently of any official course, can go ahead and do so without putting themselves through three years of painful essay faking and pretense because “that’s what everyone else does”.

"It would be terrible to think that your Ivy League graduate thesis was riding on the work ethic and perspicacity of a public-university slacker. So part of my job is to be whatever my clients want me to be. I say yes when I am asked if I have a Ph.D. in sociology. I say yes when I am asked if I have professional training in industrial/organizational psychology. I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal."

It's quite funny that such utterly dishonest people are so willing to accept someone else's word at face value. Also, that they place such stock in the institutional accreditations that they are proving to be worthless through their actions.

It's a shame the author didn't discuss where he worked, and how this industry is connected to other aspects of for-profit online education.

I 'edited' college admissions essays for a couple of years, back when I was a hungry grad student. The company I worked for, CyberEdit, was acquired by Peterson's, a subsidiary of the Thompson Corporation. When Thompson started divesting its education-based businesses, Peterson's (and CyberEdit) were acquired by Nelnet, which holds and services a large portion of federally subsidized student loans.

CyberEdit helps you get into a school you couldn't otherwise attend and Nelnet helps you pay for a school you couldn't otherwise afford - with all parties financially underwritten by your tax dollars. Great business.

I, who dropped out of CompSci after my first year, was a small-time shadow scholar.

It started innocently enough: I wasn't working, and a friend of a friend who was doing her Master's (in Education, wouldn't you know) needed help typing and formatting a document according to APA Style. I needed the money, so I visited her at the school where she worked. I took the draft she had penned and started reading.

I nearly vomited.

The quality of writing was atrocious. It wasn't just 'bad', or 'needing improvement'. It was shockingly, horrifyingly terrible.

Poor structure. Poor grammar. Not answering the question. excessive circumlocution. Hackneyed phrases every other sentence.

I diplomatically told her that I would 'change some of the words'. As she dictated and I typed, I changed sentence order and modified her word choices. When it was finished, there was a semblance of respectability. A few days later, I heard that the lecturer loved it.

That, dear friend, was the beginning. I completed quite a few assignments for her, but stopped after she started quibbling over the already small fee I charged. (Note to self: Always charge what you're worth.)

Sometime later, a neighbour in my building called me upstairs to help a friend of his. She was typing a paper for her degree to submit that evening, and he, knowing my language skills and typing speed wanted me to help. I went, sat down, and read.

Oh, dear.

I told her that in all honesty, it sucked. I made a few changes, typed up the rest. 'Twas enough for her to get hooked.

Over the next two years, I did several assignments for her. It got to where she would simply email me the research question, and I'd 'learn' the subject (yes, in 2 hours), get references, and like 'Ed Dante' divide the paper into sections, and prepare material. I could do a 10 page paper in one day, which would probably net a 90% grade or better. This was after never having heard of the topic before. She would get wonderful comments from lecturers about her 'wonderful exposition' and 'excellent analysis'. This from a girl who, although not dunce, could never verbally put sentences together half that well. I often wondered about the intellectual prowess, or lack thereof, of her teachers.

It's a smug feeling, walking around as a college dropout while knowing that you can run intellectual circles around people with graduate degrees. I should note, though, that these were all humanities subjects: Use 10 words where 1 would suffice and make up some bullshit, and you're good to go. It doesn't have to make sense because Most teachers aren't going to read it anyway!

For those of us here on HN, who are in all probability above the average, it might be difficult to understand how stupid most people are; but take it from me: they are. Very.

I'm done with it now, though. I hated researching stuff that bored me, although I sometimes learned a lot. The most important lesson?

The world is bullshit.


The world is bullshit.

And you certainly did your part in helping the world that direction.

You were willing to undersell yourself in allowing people to pass off your work and knowledge and skills as your own, and then you wonder why everyone around you seems to be so amazingly stupid. They're stupid because you provided them absolutely no incentive not to be. You made ignorance cheap, and as a result, it is precisely what you got.

There must've been some incentive for you, I presume. It probably wasn't the money, because you already said your fee was small. It wasn't the desire to wise these people up, because there was nothing for them to do once you were done. Why did you do this? I certainly hope it wasn't just for the sake of walking around smug amongst the uneducated masses, because then you are damning a monster you helped create.

I'm not going to play dumb and act like I didn't realize what I was doing.

I did it partly for the money, and partly for the sake of helping someone who would probably not have a chance to improve their life (via education). We remain good friends to this day - she called just before I read your comment.

" They're stupid because you provided them absolutely no incentive not to be."

There are some people who, irrespective of the work they put in, who will never be able to learn somethings. I used to think that people were just lazy, but then I realized that many things are beyond most people. Don't believe for a second that one day, everyone will be smart, uber-rational and we'll all live in some Randian, Galt-led utopia.

Deep, critical thinking is not possible for most people. Through no fault of their own, they simply lack the mental hardware. I recognize that this view is very un-PC, but if mind is a function of matter as I believe, some people, regardless of what they do, will never be able to reason at a high level.

The logical question then, is this: How moral is it to help someone game the system? I wouldn't feel good helping an incompetent med student or civil engineer, but what about some mid-level paper pusher? But then again, if I'm willing to make exceptions, that puts me on the slippery slope: where, exactly, do I draw the line?

I'm sorry, but I don't have easy answers. Thanks for your comment, though.

I wonder about people being unable to think critically and deeply; I think that the degree that people think deeply is a gradient across a multi-dimensional space, where possible axes include: mental wiring, motivation, and practice. I've known people who capable of thinking deeply, but will do so only when cornered, and will resent whatever put them into that position. It's not that they can't; it's that they have learned that there are social consequences when they do. They take away from the mindless fun of whatever group of people they are with when they start thinking about it.

But then again, if I'm willing to make exceptions, that puts me on the slippery slope: where, exactly, do I draw the line?

You won't know until later where the line ought to be, which makes it tricky to draw one ahead of time. I worry though, not because of the morality of your actions, but because of the moral hazard they generate. You allow them to graft your abilities onto themselves, and they are put into a position where they are expected to have those abilities themselves. This is scary, because incompetence doesn't just cause damage in catastrophic, discrete instances, such as a building falling down or a bridge failing. The damage of continuous incompetence multiplying on itself can be just as catastrophic in the end. Bare in mind, our present financial catastrophe was not the result of a single isolated incident of incompetence; it took thousands of incompetent people and the better part of a decade.

"There are some people who, irrespective of the work they put in, who will never be able to learn somethings."

Yes, and we waste untold billions of dollars and years of people's lives supposedly "learning" things they could not care about less and will never be able to apply, due to the fact they will not actually learn those things. All this due to corporations demanding a piece of paper certifying the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge, knowing full well that they piece of paper means no such thing.

In short, you were doing your small part to perpetuate an insane, wasteful, corrupt system.

> Don't believe for a second that one day, everyone will be smart, uber-rational and we'll all live in some Randian, Galt-led utopia.

Not even with properly-applied eugenics (i.e. widespread pre-fertilization gene therapy)?

How will the "properly-applied" eugenics be done? I mean, currently people get other people to write their papers for a college degree -- think of how much they'd be willing to pay if it was their kids' existence on the line!

tl;dr: Eugenics won't be properly applied because pre-eugenics people will game the system.

Before I dropped out of school altogether, I decided I would try devoting as little time to it as possible. I started forcing myself to write essays faster and faster. It got to the point where I would sit down in front of my computer for five to ten minutes and literally write a stream of consciousness vaguely connected to the topic. I could turn it in for a C or a D. We've all heard about the 80/20 rule, but it seems like there's a 60/1 rule too. The hardest part about it was putting my name on such low quality work. But if you just want to optimize returns on your time, it's amazing how little effort is required.

This is what I did towards the end of high school. I did no revision outside of class (and did most of my homework in other classes), instead spending my time at home coding or socializing. I still took an A* in math and As in sciences and a few other subjects, with the remainders as Bs (except for Ds in woodwork and religion!) .. Didn't harm my future prospects at all and the coding practice helped a ton in getting my first couple of jobs.

> I often wondered about the intellectual prowess, or lack thereof, of her teachers.

I suspect it's an issue with the quality of work they are used to getting from their students, or perhaps simply the nature of the subject. I was personally commended for the work I did in a gen. ed. class on education for papers I knew my high school AP English teacher would have given me a C+ on at best. They either just get crap most days, or the subjects are vulnerable to BS'ing, that's the only way it makes sense.

"it's hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I'd say education is the worst."

This isn't especially surprising considering that education students have the second lowest GRE scores of any academic field. (The lowest being public administrators.)

I'm not really sure how that follows. Was there some established link between GRE scores and ethics?

I suspect it has as much to do with the following requirements:

1) A degree that is take-home essay heavy. 2) Very vocational -- the goal being the degree, not the learning.

I'd expect business and law schools to be high on the list too, although maybe the dynamic is somewhat different for professional schools.

Suggested link is lack of brains, not lack of scruples - remember the shadow scholar's list of reasons includes 1 group that is simply too stupid to handle the work.

This would imply a large variance of ability in the group, not a lower average GRE score. Although it could be speculated that as the GRE score regresses to the mean (of the general population), the variance likely increases.

Hmm, I suppose one way to go would be to require students to use a version-controlled word processor for their writing, and submit the version history. It could still be faked, but the difficulty of creating a good fake would make the economics less favorable.

If it's badly faked, then the version history would provide evidence that's more likely to hold up than a teacher's suspicion about the student's writing.

Make them write a smaller version in a test environment from only say a couple of pages of notes they can bring from their long paper. Style changes would quickly become apparent.

So the shadow scholar submits his version history. And then?

A 75 page paper usually takes longer than 48 hours for normal students to write. If the version history for the paper is submitted, but all the commits are within a very short time frame, then either the student stayed up all night to write it, or they paid someone else to stay up all night to write it. And if you ask them about what the wrote on on something they took all night to write, they should know it fairly well. But if they paid someone else to do it, they wouldn't know anything that's on the paper.

So then this big company hires a programmer to write a tool to randomize entries over a week or a month or whatever, and our shadow scholar has 1 additional step when he finishes up.

Basically, this idea is DRM in another guise, and terrible for all the same reasons. If you don't trust the student that much, then simply abandon take-home work in general.

Randomized entries would be obviously fake. To be a convincing fake, they have to make sure it doesn't conflict with the student's work schedule, class schedule, and so on. That means deciding when the student was supposed to have been writing the paper, which requires quite a bit more coordination and drives up the cost.

You're assuming that the student doesn't own a laptop (or at least doesn't bring it to lectures) and that TPTB know the student's work schedule.

I live in a country where cheating is rampant (although it has gotten a little better in recent years). Most of the best students (in terms of grades) at my university were outright cheaters, or employed other indirect means of academic dishonesty. Most blamed the teachers for making the courses "unpassable".

You know what, no course is "unpassable". Its just something people make up to justify their incompetence and laziness. Yes, some educators are pretty bad, while others just don't care enough to stop this. But no matter what the teachers and authorities try, you cannot stop a reasonably adept cheater from using some way of gaming the system. People who are not interested in learning will cheat no matter what.

Trying to lay the blame on the education system and the students is like a drug dealer saying he is not to blame but the addicts are. By providing this service, people like him are making the cheating option easier for students.

I just seem to get the vibe that he is just frustrated that his novel got rejected by his university. This, compounded by financial (and perhaps academic and social?) problems, possibly results in him being bitter about university and the education system as a whole. He has every right to have whatever opinions he has. But IMHO he is no rebel working to dismantle a corrupt system. He's just a bitter writer exploiting and fueling the immorality of some people to make a buck.

(Disclaimer: I am not an educator (I work as a software engineer) and I don't even have any post-graduate degree. I just don't like people who go about buying and cheating their way through life while the rest of do it the hard way.)

Student cheating is a systemic part of the culture and there is nothing that can be done about it.

I mark logic papers. There might be a question where you have to provide a model that makes the logical formula come out as true or false - the sort of question which has an infinity of possible answers.

They never follow the particular method I suggest for working through these which would lead them to the simplest answer in each case (usually a model with only one object in the domain). Yet, somehow, one paper after another, they all come up with the exact same model, with the same number of objects in the domain, the same extensions... everything.

So they all just copy from one another. One student complained to me this year that a large group of them were copying answers from one another right in front of the office where they have to submit papers. Largely the university can't do much more than turn a blind eye - for without absolutely concrete evidence the students can (and often do) sue, and win.

I envy the knowledge that this guy has amassed.

There is probably a lot of redundancy. It's like learning a new technology. Your first project will take a long time, then, once you've solved the meta-problem, it gets incrementally faster each iteration until it reaches some lower bound. But the knowledge you gain each iteration gets lower too, until it's marginal.

Sure he probably goes through more material per day than 99.99999% of the population, but whether he remembers or understands is another matter.

And there is also the sad fact that he has to hide all that under heavy layers of academic wording.

But even in the worst case scenario, he has some degree of familiarity with almost everything. Except math.

You might not believe me, but I've seen essays in place of equations on math tests before.

I think one was even relevant enough to get partial credit...

This is good news for the education system. Now they have competition that magnifies the flaws in their practice.

I don't know. Isn't this a subsystem that hides the flaws.

Writing the article exposes some flaws but even then, most professors who read this aren't going to be able to pick out of a line up which of their students have used such services.

Widespread cheating means people don't take education seriously for whatever reason. Cheating frequency is an indicator that the education system is doing something wrong. "The customer is always right" is applicable here.

A similar attitude existed in the USSR. Students cheated cooperatively to stick it to the man. When education is "the man" it's a sign that something must change. People see it as another obstacle, not a stepping stone. Cheating became socially acceptable.

You could detect it with software, make students use an app that records the time of every keystroke and save. If a paper is written too quickly, while shorter papers from the student were not, it's a red flag.

But that would make the problem worse, cheaters will get smarter, detecting them will get harder. Educators must try new things so that people won't want to cheat in the first place. Then after detecting cheating they should use it as a metric of their own performance. Otherwise we're well on our way to social acceptance of cheating.

> Over the years, I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I'll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I did this a lot while in college--I'm sure many did. The quality of the work was terrible in hindsight, and I did cheat myself out of some good learning opportunities. But, the thing that bothers me to this day is that no teacher ever called me out. My writing tends to be technically correct, which wasn't very common in most of my classes. I think the fluff was acceptable in comparison to sloppy spelling and grammar.

This person's work completely lacks the kind of civic virtue that traditional liberal education was meant to inculcate. The responsibility lies with us, that we do not support the classical Western liberal tradition of virtue.

That guy is a good writer!

"Customers' orders are endlessly different yet strangely all the same. No matter what the subject, clients want to be assured that their assignment is in capable hands. It would be terrible to think that your Ivy League graduate thesis was riding on the work ethic and perspicacity of a public-university slacker. So part of my job is to be whatever my clients want me to be. I say yes when I am asked if I have a Ph.D. in sociology. I say yes when I am asked if I have professional training in industrial/organizational psychology. I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal."


The one thing I've learned from one of the most prestigious technical universities in the world is that results are more important than integrity.

It's worse than the actions of individual students being dishonest.

The fact that someone can do this, for so many students, in so little time, along with the fact that the students themselves have not been called out for the obvious mismatch between what they write and the signals they send out in real life with other students shows that things are fucked in a strong way; if a particular school and student is named as being part of this, it's not just that the student is called out for not doing the work that represents the degree, but that it serves as strong evidence that the particular degree or school is worthless, and the school's accreditation should be called into question. Higher education has truly gone down the toilet.

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