Find the first essay I wrote about this topic here.
I have a little bit more to write about McBrayer’s “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” editorial. But this’ll be the end of it, I swear! It’s just that I didn’t manage to cram anything in as a response to this passage:
“It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”
Which is something that’s probably worth addressing, the idea that it is not morally wrong to cheat at college. Because I think that’s probably the biggest distinction between facts and opinions: with opinions, value judgments, et al., two people presented with all the same evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions. I felt that McBrayer wrote his editorial as though it were obvious that anyone reading would think that cheating at college was morally wrong, and I disagree.
Not that I cheated on tests or homework when I was in college. And if you’d asked college me about it, he probably would’ve said immediately that cheating was invariably wrong, and maybe strung together some unpleasant-sounding adjectives to describe people who did.
I’ve mellowed out some since then, but also, the practice of writing a novel that dabbles in free indirect discourse was good for me. It forced me to empathize more with a wide variety of people, and consider why they do the things they do.
So let’s get to it, then! An argument for why it isn’t immoral to cheat in college. (Not that you should do it. This argument is based on the idea of fighting back against bad actions with more bad actions, which I think is a crummy way to live. But philosophically justifiable, in my opinion.)
If you don’t have a college degree, you’re less likely to find a job, and the job you do find will probably pay less than if you do have a college degree. I assume most people have seen the handy employment charts like the one below printed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: here’s a link in case you want more information.
If you do have a college degree, you might not find a job. And many jobs you might find won’t put your degree to any use. Here: in a token gesture toward political neutrality, I’ll include a quotation from a Forbes article written by George Leef (tagline: “I write on the damage big government does, especially to education”).
“The solution to the paradox is that the gap is widening because credential inflation is steadily wiping out good careers for people who don’t have college degrees.”
The issue here is that, given the number of available jobs, and the number of job seekers with and without a college degree, employers can chose to preferentially hire degree holders even for work that doesn’t require it. Possibly employers are extracting extra value from their workers this way: I mentioned information sets in one previous essay, but it’s probably worth a quick discussion of Michael Spence’s “Job Market Signaling” paper. Which, if you have a minute, you should at least read the first two paragraphs; you won’t learn anything about his model, but it might make you smile, and it’s not super common for economics articles to be funny.
A quick, approximate summary of his work is that all people have a hidden variable, known only to themselves, that indicates how good they are at tasks relevant for both education and employment. Education will not alter this variable in the slightest (which obviously goes against my beliefs, since I like to maintain a growth mindset about most everything in life), nor will education teach you anything that would be of use in eventual employment. Education is also costly — it’s hard work, studying, getting good grades, moving on — and is more costly the lower your value of that hidden variable. So the model assumes that brilliant students will be effective workers, and that your brilliant student would be just as effective if you hired him or her out of middle school or after waiting until a whole litany of advanced degrees have been obtained.
The idea, then, is that employers for high-paying jobs will preferentially hire those with fancy degrees. The fancy degree indicates that this person will be an effective worker. Less effective workers don’t have fancy degrees because their costs of getting degrees are higher, so the break-even point, where they’re better off quitting school and settling for whatever job they can get with the degrees they have already, comes sooner. Maybe after high school, maybe after a B.A., maybe after an M.A., whatever.
Under all the assumptions of the model (which, right, obviously everyone knows a brilliant student or two who’s a crappy worker. There are plenty of jobs for which I’d fall into that category: I’m clumsy and don’t deal well with authority figures, two strikes against me for many forms of employment), this could work out reasonably well if there are plenty of jobs. People get a fair chance, and, yes, their college degrees are just a waste of time and effort to obtain, but at least they get their good jobs.
In a bad economy, though, where job offers are doled out by a cartel of employers with near-monopsonic power, future employees are pushed to obtain more and more useless degrees… the idea of a break-even point arriving is based on knowing that there’ll be a job available for you when you stop out of education. But if there are many people, including ten potential high achievers, all striving for nine jobs, then there’s no reason to stop out of education… you could keep accruing degrees hoping to supplant anyone holding those jobs currently. And, given that the degrees come at a cost to you, and all they accomplish is signaling to a potential employer, and there’s no reason to want to signal honestly provided you can do the work, then it would be moral to take whatever measures necessary to reduce your cost of obtaining degrees. Including cheating.
And all of this is especially relevant now because: one, the economy is bad enough that many college graduates can only find minimum-wage jobs; two, at many universities the quality of education is not super high (it’s worth looking at Murray Sperber’s “Beer and Circus” for a thorough discussion of this point); and, three, the cost of college education has been rising dramatically. Financial cost, that is. The effort cost of many college degrees has been dropping, but the rising financial cost alone is pretty horrible. These three factors in concert seem sufficient to make our current world more closely resemble Spence’s model than the world did when his paper was published.
Not to say that I think people should cheat. I think a better system would be for jobs to be available, and for each level of education to be sufficiently rigorous that students gain something from the experience (honestly, there’s an additional essay lurking behind this sentiment, the idea that many “low achieving” students are written off and purposefully not challenged by their teachers during school — one thing K does really well is that she forces students in her intro-level / you’re-shunted-into-this-if-you-seem-like-a-screw-up science class to work, and the students generally seem to enjoy being forced to work because it means one hour in which they’re not bored out of their skulls), and for students to comply with educator-imposed morality during school.
But that would require many things to be different about our world — to start, new fiscal policy with increased spending so that more jobs would be generated, and major restructuring of education at all levels, including elementary, secondary, collegiate and graduate. Until those changes occur, though, I think cheating can be justified as a morally-reasoned response to an all-around bad situation.