Wal-Mart for Walden Pond

When Dave Tomar’s new book The Shadow Scholar: How I made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat appears next month, the attention is probably going to be on the failings of the students and on the ethical faults of those abetting them. Perhaps it should also be on the rest of us, who have allowed a diploma and the grades leading to it to become commodities. It has been a long process but, for too many, education has turned from something internal, something one carries no matter the situation, to a market item only. The implications of my favorite lines from The Wizard of Oz are no longer just a joke based on a little truth. Now they are the truth:

Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning — where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep     thoughts — and with no more brains than you have…. But!  They have one thing you haven’t got!  A diploma!

Responsibility for this can’t just be placed on the students or the cheaters or even on those who help them. As The Chronicle of Higher Education tells it, Tomar:

recounts how, as an alienated and angry young man, he felt he had been “defrauded” by an academic system that broke its promises to students.

Who did the “defrauding”?

It wasn’t the students.

Though Tomar’s is a feeble excuse, one that can stand up only to the most sympathetic scrutiny, he does have a point. Educational establishments have been making promises to students they cannot keep:

The book… offers an unsettling account of higher education at perhaps its most cynical and mercantile.

We on the faculty can easily brush that off onto the administrations of higher education and onto the culture at large, but we certainly have been profiting from the deception (if it is that) that has been played on the young. Tomar

aims his ire at more-traditional institutions… which he decries as a “money farm” that sold him on an idealized version of Walden Pond but gave him Wal-Mart instead.

I grew up at a time when colleges were genuinely trying to find ways of educating the whole person, sometimes through great experiments ranging from that of the (much older) Black Mountain College and even St. John’s College to Antioch College with its work program (echoed at the time I went there by my own alma mater, Beloit College) to Friends World College, which had campuses on five continents and required students to keep a four-year journal in order to graduate.

Where are the experiments today? Where are the educators genuinely experimenting with new models, new ways of providing something significant to students? Today, almost all of us seem to have accepted (if by default) the 3-or-4 credit, multiple-course-per-semester model with more and more restrictive pathways to graduation. Our classroom walls seem more solid than ever (they even extend onto the web) and the seating arrangement (a single big desk facing many small ones) is becoming less and less malleable (the circle of chairs becoming a hippy-dippy anachronism). Even that is reflected in our online classes.

Yes, there are plenty of people struggling against the closing grip of a mercantile-based model of education based on a faulty imagining of the way things used to be–but they are rare, too rare.

Though Tomar alone won’t wake us to the reality of education today, it is certainly past time that faculty open their eyes and start to take in the reality that has overtaken us. Only then can we really start to change things.

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