Bespoke off-the-peg Learning

Full sized posters advertising the production and supply of customised essays to university students were reported to Transport for London who today removed them.

They had been pasted up in London subway platforms at places in the Tube network which are close by to that city’s seats of learning.

A statistic was bandied about along with this news item of today, which claimed that 50,000 cases of ‘plagiarism’ by UK students were detected in the previous academic year.  The universities currently have software which detects when too much material has been copied by a student from elsewhere on the web. It has become obligatory for UK students to push their work through this software previous to its submission to the educational institution, and so obtain a score on the originality of their work.

I guess all of us have memories of the guy in the exam room with the crib sheet in his top pocket or written in felt pen on her arm a long scrawl of examination data?  Nothing new here.

Excepting the blatant public advertising, and so the soliciting into temptation of, students for them to opt for buying in an essay to present as their own.  Apparently it is not illegal to advertise in this way here in UK.  Transport for London was good enough to remove the offending ads but had no legal obligation to do so.

Academics spoke on the phenomenon of these ads appearing.  The value of academic qualifications being compromised was an obvious and vociferous topic. The resultant harm possible to genuine students’ standings and future careers by such a compromise was another thought aired.  One cynic said the following (in so many words): Our tutor used to say to us that: ‘Copying from a single source is plagiarism; from two sources is a standard essay; and from three sources was original research.’ Pretty shallow eh?

To be fair I have to mention that one guy phoned in and said he had gone to university having had little academic background, and so he paid for and bought an off the peg bespoke essay so that he was able to see what kind of writing style and content was required of him. He also said he did not use the essay he bought to hand in as his own. He claimed it had been a useful experience.

These essays sell to students at several hundred UK£ a time; and I believe it is possible to pay a premium so as to buy an essay which offers you the grade marking you wish to obtain.

The business is lucrative (it is a pretty penny to post large posters in Transport for London subway stations in prime spaces) and the websites who offer these services claim to have supplied tens to hundreds of thousands of essays to buyers.

The scale of this bespoke off the peg buying of essays then is the difference between today’s carry-on and yesterday’s Day-Glo data along the length of an arm or basic fact cards in one’s top pocket. As with so much else, the internet has provided scope for this hanky-panky to be practiced in spades; and so for Uncle Tom Cobly and his wife to join the bandwagon

The problem, if you see it as a problem, is more than this however – as I see it. Just as the great late Socrates no less, was convinced of and gave excellent reasons for his belief that no person did wrong knowingly; so I want to uphold his case here and now, and in regard to this sale of essays ready-made and to order to students.

I’d like to say that should the students who might have obtained a high qualification by their use of these essay writing services; not just buying one essay but maybe many or most of the essays they were expected to have laboured upon and created themselves; should they establish themselves in industry or in public service by the material aid of their ill-gotten qualifications, what, as a result and in any proper sense will be the level of conduct in that position to be expected from them?

I would say that having got away with murder once, a guy likely becomes pretty casual about the contemplation of a next victim.  Set aside for now the terrible harm physically or mentally that a more-or-less unqualified person can do in practising say, engineering or psychiatry, and consider the less direct although just as pernicious harm possible to the general fabric of social goodwill, trust, confidence, and belief, for those who might know of or witness such serial cheaters cheating again and again but now placed in positions of power and influence and maybe situated above civic restraint or prevention?

This is not a single terrible injury or trauma and then a culprit struck off. This is the trajectory of sociopathology.  Precious few men and women who rise to prominence in the world are able or willing to attempt to remain upright and hold onto their integrity and discretion.  The temptation of power; of being able to act because one can; and the attrition of hearing only good words and receiving no checks of criticism; are too great for most of us not to be destroyed as social and societal beings, and thus pass over to the dark side.

Lord Acton, a Victorian British historian termed this problem thus: ‘Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  On the one hand look at Mugabe, and at Nixon; but on the other hand, amongst the very few icons, are shining lights like Mandela and Ghandi.

The fact of success, at the beginning of a career, in having obtained a good degree or such without putting in the work, and thus buying one’s way to advancement; and the precedent this sets as a formative influence on one’s character; and its encouragement upon one to proceed further in using the same successful but bogus strategy; all this, one might say if one was a cynic, is the typical gravy train to the top, but all this is also disaster and fallout as big and as bad as Hiroshima or Chernobyl for oneself and for the general welfare to boot.

The looming and growing-in-pressure ever-present question hanging for such a person has to be: What am I left with in the end?  I might have had a ‘good time’ and enjoyed ‘the life of Riley’ for years on end, not really caring to think forwards, and happy to be ‘in the moment’ as much as I can be; but the time at which the backlog and accumulation of trouble whose evil day I have put off again and again, is yet approaching inevitably and with some momentum, and then, like a Tsunami, it hits.

I am not trying to make a moral point; maybe it has an aesthetic aspect, but I am looking at the utter human tragedy of such a life misspent, and this becoming conscious to an offender at a time so late in the day, when there is no time left in which to change oneself and one’s tack.  A person who opposes this analysis of mine here, might even cite the Biblical Parable of the Vineyard wherein the guys who took up tools to work only at the final hour of the day get the same pay as those who had been at work in the vineyard since early morning and under a hot sun.

The parable stands and is good – but are you?  Is it not the case that such a guy will find that despair is as likely, if not more likely, to arise in him than repentance?  Because one feels, or rather has become so inured that one is unable to feel, the enormity and broad latitude of the sheer waste of what was at one time, far back, possible to have been lived otherwise.  This is the story, the tragedy, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not

 To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

 …..mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man

 Blow wind; come rack/ At least I’ll die with harness on my back

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