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Cheating at Everything

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Cheryl says she could never cheat because–among other reasons–the lie would go on throughout her life.   Not only would she be claiming, now, to know something she hadn’t learned, but she would go on claiming it through the grade on her transcript, sent out ot employer after employer through the rest of her life as if she had actually done the work.

I think the key to understanding my students–as far as it is possible to understand them–is that they wouldn’t think of buying a term paper for a distribution course “cheating.”   As far as they’re concerned, they aren’t claiming to know something they don’t.  There’s nothing to know.   Literature courses, philosophy courses, even history courses are either largely without content, or so irrevelant as to be meaningless in any practical context.

It would be one thing if they thought the university administration expected them to acquire some kind of knowledge in one of these areas, or that employers expected them to possess it.  Instead, they think there is no knowledge here to acquire or possess, and that everybody in the system–their teachers, the university, their employers–knows full well that “distribution requirements” are just methods of extracting time and money from students to keep the university profitable.   Paying attention to such things is just silly.

Did I mention the fact that among the things they don’t know is the distinction between for-profit and non-profit institutions?  Or even that there is such a thing as a nonprofit institution.

I met with those particular classes yesterday, and we worked on an article called “How Stupid Are  We?”  This is the link I gave them


and I’ll warn you that my younger son really hates this article.  He thinks Shenkman is something of a snob and something of a snot, which is probably true. 

But the significance of the article lies in the reaction of the majority of my students to it, and that is to complain that Shenkman has no right to pass judgment on people just because they don’t know this stuf.   Why does it matter if anybody knows any of this stuf, anyway?  What difference does it make and why should they care?

Before I get into exactly what it is they don’t know and don’t care they don’t know, I want to point out a point I started to make a week or so ago–all of these things, science and social science and humanities, hang together.  There is no situation in which we can indulge a know-nothing dismissal of literature of philosophy without finding that those same know-nothings feel exactly the same way about history and biology.   The issue, for these students, is not “why should anybody know anything about literature?”  It’s “why should anybody expect me to know anything about anything that isn’t my major or something I’m interested in?”

There were quite a few things in that article that my students didn’t understand why anybody should care if they knew.  For instance–why know what Roe v. Wade is?  It’s enough to know tha abortion is legal.  Why know who the Presidents were before they were born?  Why should anybody care who’s on the Supreme Court, or whether it’s the President or Congress who can declare war?  It doesn’t have anyting to do with them, and even if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it.

In a way, I think it’s a testament to the success of this country that so many of them feel this way.   Let me tell you who doesn’t feel this way:  the students I have who have immigrated from Eastern Europe, or the Middle  East, or  Africa.   History and government look a lot more important when even small changes in them can take away your livelihood, put your parents in prison, get you killed. 

My American-born students, though, are indignant that anybody would expect them to know things like the differences between the federal government and the government of the states, or the geographic location of Iraq.

“i could see it if you had your brother or your boyfriend in the war,” one of the young women said.  “Then you’d look it up because it would be important to you.”

I don’t know if my students are typical of students throughout the system, but I think they probably are typical of students on the bottom rungs of it.  And certainly some of them are “stupid” in the strict sense.  That is, they are not intellectually gifted.  They have a hard time with even simple abstractions.

But most of the students in the class that was the most indignant about that article are not stupid in this strict sense.  They are woefully unprepared, but what distinguishes them is this conviction that all such knowledge is “useless,” that it doesn’t matter if you know this sort of thing, that none of this has anything to do with their lives, and that their lives are what matter.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t think they should think their lives matter, only that I don’t know if their conviction that ONLY their lives matter is the result of their prior education (or lack of it) or of something more innate.  I don’t even know how to go about asking that question. 

I don’t know what to do about the problem, either, or in the face of the wall of resentment they put up whenever I give them a handout or send them to a website that requires them to know words (solipsism, xenophobia) or things (what 1984 is, the significance of Pearl Harbor) that they consider both irrelevant and “boring.”  I sometimes think this is the chief difference between them and the students at high-end schools like Yale and Vassar.  My students find almost everything “boring.”

It’s this thing–this insistence that everything is “boring” and that nobody has the right to demand they know anything about stuff that “doesn’t matter”–that I think causes the weird incoherence of much high school educaiton in literature and history.  In literature, it results in reading choices that have very little to do with the Great Conversation–or even the Western Canon–but that are perceived to be “relevant” (and therefore not “boring”) to student lives. 

For a while that meant endless assignments on Catcher in the  Rye, or A Separate Peace, both declared “relevant” because they dealt with high school students, never mind that the high schools involved are high-end prep schools and not  Andrew Jackson Tech.  Later the fad was for The  Outsiders, which had the virtue of not only being about high school but having been written by a high school student. 

Most of all, not being “boring” meant not assigning anything written before, say, 1950, so that in high school after high school students managed to make their way through and into college classrooms without ever having even heard mention of Oedipus Tyrranus or King Lear.  They were, and are, given no sense of the flow of the literature, of the way it developed over time, of what came before or after what else.   It was all a big jumble, and time after time, the only thing they were required to “know” about it was if they found it “interesting” or if they thought it was “good.” 

If that’s all that courses in literature are about, why in heaven’s name shouldn’t they buy term papers?  What point is there in wasting their time with this sort of thing?

History really isn’t in much better shape, even if they can articulate at least one reason for knowing something about it–that if you don’t know something about it, you might repeat old mistakes.    I think that must be something they’ve heard from their high school English teachers, since so many of them can trot it out when I ask why anybody would want them to know something about history and government.

But the explanation doesn’t really work for them, because as far as they’re concerend, they’re going to be spending their time in marketing or equine management.  They’re not going to be the ones charged with running the country and worrying about repeating old mistakes.  Let the pre-law maors worry about all that.  A lot of them want to go into politics, and if you want to go into politics then all that is important.  For the rest of us, it’s just a lot of useless crap they’ve got no reason to clutter up their heads with.

The defense of the liberal arts has to be total.  It really does.  My students do not represent the failure of literature courses in particular or history courses in particular or math courses in particular or science courses in particular.  They represent the wholesale rejection of the u tility of any kind of knowledge at all beyond that that is immediately necessary for their personal concerns.  It is a posture towards learning and understand that infects everything they do. 

And I think that it affects the rest of us, in ways we don’t even think about.

Written by janeh

November 7th, 2008 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Cheating at Everything'

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  1. ““i could see it if you had your brother or your boyfriend in the war,” one of the young women said. “Then you’d look it up because it would be important to you.””

    This is an echo of the popular idea from some years back that with the rapid increase in knowledge, it is now more important to know how to look things up than to actually learn facts. After all, no one can know all the data that’s available, and much of it changes anyway.

    I think there are limits to this approach.


    7 Nov 08 at 7:40 am

  2. Despite the gratituous ad hominem–“Shenkman is something of a snob and something of a snot, which is probably true”–I found this posting fascinating.

    How about asking students if it is not important for them to understand why they think the way they do–which is different from the way, say, students in France think, or students in Senegal.

    Wouldn’t they want to know why they believe the things they do about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

    I cannot imagine a student who isn’t intrigued by this question.

    The answer of course involves history. Who we are and why we think the way we do has to do with our identity as Americans, which was shaped by history.

    Or do these kids think that all kids everywhere define themselves the same way?

    If they do, then they are true Americans. They believe everybody wants to be an American and see the world the way Americans do.

    Of course, it’s our history that prepares us to think this way.

    But students are indifferent to this?

    I don’t believe it.

    It’s bad teaching when students say they are bored with history.

    What they are bored with is history that’s badly taught.

    Rick Shenkman


    7 Nov 08 at 12:21 pm

  3. Posting at 4AM after a night of insomnia is probably a mistake but here goes.

    The title “How Stupid are We?” reminded me of a common theme in science fiction. An interstellar traveller encounters a pre-literate or pre-scientific culture. Then a native does or says something very clever. The traveller reminds himself “Illiterate is not the same as stupid” or “Ignorance is not the same as dumb.”

    Let us remember that by our standards, Plato, Aristotle and Newton were ignorant.

    It is important for people to know they have freedom of speech and assembly. But do they need to know that both are in the First Amendment?


    7 Nov 08 at 12:59 pm

  4. The Shenkman article seems to be a defense from utility of the study of history and government–a stance for which (ahem) certain of us are sometimes taken to task. The case from utility for these studies in a democracy is an easy one to make. It might extend as far as science, but not easily as far as literature or philosophy, let alone the non-verbals such as music and art. (The kids’ argument is effectively a denial of democracy–the stance that their votes cannot have an effect. Perhaps this week’s events will diminish that belief–or the events of the next few years will confirm their current opinion. Time will tell.)

    But if the kids “reject the utility of any kind of knowledge at all beyond that that is immediately necessary for their personal concerns” someone else confidently asserted that the study of the liberal arts involved no moral or material advantage. Either we’re making the case for utility, or we’re making the case for the “Great Conversation.” Let’s not slide from one to the other.

    The defense of the liberal arts MAY need to be total, but repeated assertions do not make that case, or any other. I’m afraid I’d need to see it unpacked–whether we are hearing what it is necessary for a responsible citizen to know, or what a human being or a member of Western civilization ought to know in order to take part in the “Great Conversation,” and in either case what is necessary and what is auxilliary, and how these may be determined by reason or practice. I’ve been chased by a good few teachers and professors with reading lists and humongous axes to grind, and my son after me. Before it goes on to my grandchildren, I’d like a better system than “the opinion of experts”–or better experts.


    7 Nov 08 at 7:18 pm

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