Education as fakery

A fraudulent diploma from an Axact school. New York Times, May 17, 2015, fair use.
Fig. 1. A fraudulent diploma from an Axact school. New York Times, May 17, 2015, fair use.

Having been in school continuously since 2003, working my way through a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, and being well on my way to a Ph.D., my reaction to a New York Times story about a fraudulent diploma mill in Pakistan[1] is probably pretty predictable. Certainly, as I write my dissertation, this is not a good time to tell me about people who spend $4,000 or more to claim a level of educational attainment that I will have spent—including earlier time spent acquiring an Associate’s degree in the late 1970s and a couple quarters at what was then California State University Hayward in the 1980s—sixteen years in higher education (assuming I finish in Spring 2016) and hundreds of thousands of dollars achieving.

In our globalized neoliberal society, however, where exchange value has come to outweigh all other value, it should be no surprise that cheating has become rampant. Not so long ago, photographs emerged of people helping students to pass a test in India (figure 2). Learning is not the value here. Passing the test is.

One of many images of people scaling the exteriors of buildings so as to help children pass an examination. British Broadcasting Corporation, March 19, 2015, fair use.
Fig. 2. One of many images of people scaling the exteriors of buildings so as to help children pass an examination. British Broadcasting Corporation, March 19, 2015, fair use.

But while the images from India make a lovely caricature, No Child Left Behind and Common Core have done much the same to education in the United States: Again, education has become more about passing than learning.[2]

There is another reason I should temper my reaction. In the 1980s, before they computerized, I was ordained by the Universal Life Church, obtained their honorary Doctorate, and titles ranging from Father to Archbishop and Guru. I wasn’t taking it any more seriously than when a friend obtained a fake degree—notice the fine print at the bottom—illustrated in figure 3.

A fictional degree from a fictional university, apparently marketed to science fantasy fans. Facebook, May 15, 2015, fair use.
Fig. 3. A fictional degree from a fictional university, apparently marketed to science fantasy fans. Facebook, May 15, 2015.

Similarly, I progressed through several courses at Starfleet Academy, as part of my membership at the time in Starfleet International, a Star Trek fan club, and I’m betting that if I looked, I could find corresponding certificates. All in good fun, I suppose.

I’m troubled nonetheless. I suppose I can be said to have atoned for my dalliances with the Universal Life Church and Starfleet International. I have earned real degrees from accredited schools and will have achieved the highest of them all when I complete my Ph.D.

I’ll have also racked up something like $300,000 in student loan debt. But to be honest, beyond the fact that I needed that money to survive since I don’t seem to be gainfully employable, I don’t care that much about the money. I care about the achievement. I care about the work I’m putting into my dissertation. I care about the social good I think and hope I am producing.[3]

The BBC reports of the cheating in India, “Local newspapers have been full of photos of parents and relatives trying to help their children cheat even at considerable risk to their own lives.”[4] While hundreds of students have apparently been expelled, the overwhelming picture that emerges includes mass collusion with local police and school authorities.[5] The New York Times reports that “Axact’s business model faces few threats within Pakistan, where it does not promote its degrees.” And apparently, “[a]nother business unit, employing about 100 people, writes term papers on demand for college students.”[6]

I’ll have to defend my dissertation, which among other things, assures my committee that I in fact actually did the research and wrote it. But for too many people, I guess it’s all a joke.

Correction, May 18, 2015: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the current iteration of No Child Left Behind as “Core Curriculum.” The correct name is “Common Core.” The text has been corrected.

  1. [1]Declan Walsh, “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions,” New York Times, May 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html
  2. [2]Lizette Alvarez, “States Listen as Parents Give Rampant Testing an F,” New York Times, November 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/us/states-listen-as-parents-give-rampant-testing-an-f.html; Jonathan Zimmerman, “Why Is American Teaching So Bad?” review of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), by Elizabeth Green, and Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, by Garret Keizer, New York Review of Books, December 4, 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/04/why-american-teaching-so-bad/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Dissertation Proposal: Conservative Views on Undocumented Migrants,” November 10, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/11/10/dissertation-proposal-conservative-views-on-undocumented-migrants/
  4. [4]British Broadcasting Corporation, “India students caught ‘cheating’ in exams in Bihar,” March 19, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-31960557
  5. [5]Indrajit Singh, “600 Indian high school students expelled for cheating on exams,” Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2015/0320/600-Indian-high-school-students-expelled-for-cheating-on-exams
  6. [6]Declan Walsh, “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions,” New York Times, May 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html

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