Pundits routinely assert there is a cheating epidemic in American education.

A few statistics can confirm the extent of the problem. Researchers at the University of Nebraska surveyed students and found that “89 percent said glancing at someone else’s answers during a test was cheating, but 87 percent said they’d done that at least once. Also, 94 percent said providing answers to someone during a test was cheating — but 74 percent admitted to doing it.”

Our_Cheating_HeartPaying someone else to write your course work is also common, and now a big business. More than 100 websites provide essays that students hand in as their own work. eCheat.com, a particularly shameless site, flaunts this motto: “It’s Not Cheating, It’s Collaborating….Welcome to eCheat.com, a leading free essay and student resource site. eCheat has an extensive archive of free essays, all submitted and graded by high school and college students. eCheat also has an archive of 60,000 professionally written papers available for purchase.”

One solo scribe bragged in an ad: “I have been making a living doing this work for the last three years….I have graduated with four clients, start to finish, am working with three Masters level clients, and partner with a wide range of clients on an assignment to assignment basis.”

Another hustler said, in a mighty burst of sophistry: “It’s not plagiarism if I write it for you.”

It certainly is. Just as every grade, and every degree, that results from cheating is a lie, and surely constitutes fraud on future employers. (Consult your lawyer. Wouldn’t the cheater and the ghostwriter be engaged in racketeering?)

Here’s the real shocker. According to Educational Testing Services, “only 35% of college officials believe cheating is a problem,” this despite research showing that “73% of all test takers, including prospective graduate students and teachers, agree that most students do cheat at some point. 86% of high school students agreed. But college officials don’t see a problem.” That’s a problem.

Notice the swirling together of academic decline with loss of integrity. It’s long been my contention that our Education Establishment aims low, and hits their target. Nobody learns much but everyone gets a good grade and is promoted. The Education Establishment seems irresistibly drawn to leveling. At some point, however, students run into the real world: exams, resumes, entrance requirements, job interviews. If some students need to cheat, let’s be understanding–that seems to be the evolving policy. Surely, administrators could easily stop the cheating, or much of it, if they really wanted to. In not cracking down on the cheaters, the officials allow an unforgivable pressure on the honest to begin cheating. And once somebody lies or cheats one time, the next time is easier. You think the officials don’t know that? Do they intend to corrupt the society?

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed an anonymous ghost writer. All the sleazy themes come together in his comments:

“In the midst of this great recession, business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 writers is not large enough to satisfy the demands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.

“You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word ‘desperate’ misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.

“For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?”

This e-ghost provides the perfect anecdote for where we are: “The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): ‘You did me business ethics proposal for me I need proposal got approved pls can you will write me paper?’ I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.”

So here’s my summary. The public schools have insisted for decades on doing a mediocre job. The people in charge are endlessly clever at coming up with methods and strategies that seem always to result in less education, not more. Meanwhile, higher education has become a vast multi-billion dollar industry. Follow the money. Who would dare to disrupt the flow of warm bodies to the nation’s colleges, where most presidents make a quarter to a half-million dollars, professors do quite well, and government loans to students keep the whole scheme in business?

To conceal this premeditated or at least permitted decline, and to give ever more students a chance to reach college and beyond, and to keep the higher-ed industry at full boil, all sorts of subterfuges (intellectual and otherwise) must be resorted to. There is real moral squalor throughout the following anecdotes.

ABC’s Primetime heard the same refrain from many students who cheat: “that cheating in school is a dress rehearsal for life. They mentioned President Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal and financial scandals like the Enron case, as well as the inconsistencies of the court system.

’Whether or not you did it or not, if you can get the jury to say that you’re not guilty, you’re free,’ said Will, a student at one of the top public high schools in the nation.

 “Mary, a student at a large university in the South, said, ‘A lot of people think it’s like you’re not really there to learn anything. You’re just learning to learn the system.’

“Joe is a student at a top college in the Northeast who admits to cheating regularly. Like all of the college students who spoke to Primetime, he wanted his identity obscured. In Joe’s view, he’s just doing what the rest of the world does. ‘The real world is terrible,’ he told Gibson. ‘People will take other people’s materials and pass it on as theirs. I’m numb to it already. I’ll cheat to get by.’”

Behold what our Education Establishment has given to the nation–young adults who are cynical, dishonest, and smug about it.

Of course, everyone knows that Atlanta’s huge school system has similar morals. Media reports wondered how Atlanta could “establish such pervasive unethical habits? Apparently some 178 educators, including 38 principals, are named as perpetrators of this educational fraud, and more than 80 have confessed to their roles in the 2011 scoring scam. Cheating took place in 44 of the 56 schools examined in the investigation.” In fairness, many other cites have reported similar scandals. Naturally, you wonder how many of those “educators” had cheated their way through college and grad school. It’s what they know how to do. Somebody suggests having a “pizza party” to alter grades; and these people apparently react: “Sure, why not?”

One ghost writer reports that nurses are a big part of his business. Do some also cheat on their exams? But tomorrow one of them might be emending or evaluating your medical records. Replicate that scene in every direction. Imagine the vast army of phonies and pretenders throughout our society. People who didn’t earn their good grades, didn’t deserve their advanced degrees, and don’t now know their presumed area of expertise. Our society will be less productive and efficient each year.

Is it too late? Can we start over? With the new wave of elementary school kids, for example? Teach them to read, write and do arithmetic. This approach always works. Teach them that honesty is the best policy; and make it difficult to cheat. Meanwhile, teach them foundational knowledge in an orderly systematic way. Then they can pass their tests and advance honestly.

Too many high-level educators seem comfortable with taking away a child’s learning and then a child’s honor.

(For related analysis, see “45: The Crusade Against Knowledge” on the writer’s site Improve-Education.org.)