Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Best and the Brightest May Not Be

Yesterday afternoon Tracy Seipel put up an article on the Web site for the San Jose Mercury News reporting that Stanford University is investigating allegations of cheating. This was apparently announced by University Provost John Etchemendy last Tuesday, but I assume that Seipel article was delayed to allow time to research conditions at other schools. Sure enough, the article also provides data points for Dartmouth College, the University of North Carolina, and Harvard University. It also includes an account of a study by a Stanford Professor of Statistics showing that between 40% and 86% of students reported having cheated while at college. Personally, I find that a rather wide window for a statistical inference; but there may still be cause to believe that something is rotten in the groves of academe.

Two Etchemendy quotes are worth considering:
In violating academic integrity, they are cheating themselves of the very core of our mission -- the process of learning and discovery -- as well as risking severe consequences.

But with the ease of technology and widespread sharing that is now part of a collaborative culture, students need to recognize and be reminded that it is dishonest to appropriate the work of others.
Regarding the first, I can only repeat what I have previously observed, that ours has become a culture that no longer includes the word "consequences" in its working vocabulary. As to the second, I would argue that technology has not fostered a "collaborative culture." Rather, it has fostered a culture of appropriation. This is a culture that involves little more than instant gratification for the individual. It used to be that begging, borrowing, and stealing were the alternatives to hard work in achieving such gratification. Now we can add searching with Google to the list, since the prevailing mantra seems to be that it is not stealing if you can find it on the Internet.

As a sidebar I have to say that reading Etchemendy's name tweaked some memories, but I could not bring them into focus. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue. His entry there reminded me that, with Jon Barwise (who died in 2000), he wrote the book, The Liar: An Essay in Truth and Circularity. That seems to color the current situation with just the right shade of irony.

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