Friday, March 20, 2009
The Chronicle of Higher Education features a fascinating article about students who "outsource" their college writing assignments -- sometimes including dissertations! -- overseas to essay mills. Most of the article focuses on the shady nature of one such mill in particular, how orders are processed, and what might motivate the participants in such a transaction.
Needless to say, the article finds more than one parallel to the economic phenomenon of outsourcing, particularly as made possible by the great efficiency of today's electronic communications across the globe. In fact, it holds out these essays-for-hire as examples of outsourcing: "Just as many American companies are outsourcing their administrative tasks, many American students are perfectly willing to outsource their academic work."
But are they?
According to one dictionary, to outsource means, "to obtain goods or services from an outside source." The usual understanding for the motivational context of the term comes from business, but it certainly applies to individuals, as indicated by another definition of outsourcing: "To send out (work, for example) to an outside provider or manufacturer in order to cut costs."
The term, which verges on the superfluous, ends up in practice simply describing any recent application of the law of comparative advantage. Its main utility seems to be in pointing out just how well recent technological advances have created new opportunities to do this.
So, in a literal, context-dropping, and short-sighted sense, one could certainly say that the students are outsourcing their essays. They don't have adequate time for the immediate assignment (or, worse, to learn the research or writing skills they need in order to do the work), but they have money on hand to pay someone who has, to produce the essay. They save on time by paying the essay mill money that they value less than this time.
But the comparison to outsourcing breaks down when the legitimate purpose of the course work is considered, and that is precisely for the student to acquire skills in writing and research, not to mention experience thinking about the material of the course. This is ideally the whole reason a student is attending the class, and it is something that, by its very nature, cannot be outsourced. It is this fact which demolishes even the best legitimate-sounding reason to use an essay mill I saw in the article, which is, "to use it to get ideas." You cannot pay someone to acquire skills and experience on your behalf. Most or all of the students participating in these transactions are cheating themselves.
Having said that, and still not to excuse this practice, one issue driving the growth of modern essay mills remained unmentioned, although the article brushed very closely with it: What is an education for?
But [Notre Dame Associate Professor Susan D.] Blum points out a more fundamental issue. She thinks professors and administrators need to do a better job of talking to students about what college is about and why studying -- which may seem like a meaningless obstacle on the path to a credential -- actually matters. "Why do they have to go through the process of researching?" she says. "We need to convey that to them."Thanks to progressive education and credentialism, which feed off one another, students are too focused on the marks they will get for an assignment or a course, rather than the vital improvements to their minds that they will get out of a course. And often, many are accustomed to getting very little of the latter. To that extent, the urge to "outsource" is understandable.
The "progressives", by setting education against the process of fostering the rational faculty, have severed it from its proper, selfish role to the student in more ways than one. (e.g., Even if you can get the students to appreciate thinking about one course in particular, you won't necessarily get them to generalize the lesson to all disciplines. They won't necessarily know how to generalize.)
Pragmatic credentialists finish the job of making a time-wasting joke out of education by attempting to bypass the work of evaluating how well any given individual has mastered his material and can apply it to the tasks he needs to perform in order to help a future employer and thus to make a living.