I just read a rather depressing article from the Journal of Higher Education on students who cheat by commissioning custom essays, ascribed to an illicit essay writer. It’s good in its way — I could imagine him writing very decent BS on a regular basis as is his trade. He seems to be quite good at it. There follows a very long string of comments, a few dozen of which I trudged through. They tend toward shock, horror, amusement, finger-pointing, and, especially “the problem is…” I’m very familiar with that one. It’s how the rational mind confronts a difficulty — what the brain does when it encounters a circumstance that doesn’t suit it. How can I solve this problem? How can I solve the problem that I’m unsuited to my major, my circumstance, my work? How can I solve the problem that these kids can’t read, that they hardly want to read, that I can’t explain why reading is a delight except to people who can already do it well enough to understand delightful books? The problem is the students, the administration, the students, the tests, the lack of tests, standards that are too high, and that are too low. The problem is there’s too little sunlight, and then too much. The problem is lesson plans, lack of lesson plans, too much time, too little time, too little accountability, the wrong sort, burn-out, lazyness. The problem is it’s too noisy, too boring, too hard, too easy.
Whatever gave you the idea these people were a problem and it’s your job to solve them? I asked myself that after talking a few minutes with Fr Paul in Homer Alaska — I had described my woes in usual teacher fashion. I can’t solve this problem! I can’t make these kids read, or write, or know what it is they have to say, or have a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility! I can’t! I can’t solve them…. Oh, wait… why do we teachers talk like young people are problems — we need to solve them. Make them read, make them write — coax and coddle and whack them into whatever form we find acceptable?
Because it’s important to be able to read, write, think, manipulate numbers, understand… because it’s a joy. The literary, rational, and aesthetic powers are a joy to us, but it’s too hard to communicate that in advance. Is War and Peace worth spending another five years in school, so you can read beyond at more than basic competency? Is Ulysses worth it? Is Shakespeare? Or Aristotle? Perhaps. I tend to think so, since we have that possibility — since no one’s going to starve or freeze if our children spend twelve or sixteen years polishing their rational powers. But often — so often, apparently — they don’t, and what then. We’re frustrated, angry; how do I solve this problem?
The problem is… we don’t want to suffer. It’s hard, and so many things have a potential to cause suffering. Even reading and writing and thinking; finding our words inadequate to the task; finding ourselves inadequate, or sinful; not knowing what to do with it. Having to live through that — live in the uncertainty of that. Can I write this essay? What happens if I can’t? What happens if I can’t do my job at the level I need to? What happens if I’m a brilliant essayist who’s determined to live as a factory worker, but I’m a bad factory worker? What if I must pass this class, and can’t? What happens if I don’t? Something I suppose will be suffering — and we don’t like to suffer. The problem is… principles are good and right and just, but it’s hard to live through the kinds of things we have to live through, and we’d very much like to get out of them if we can. If nothing prevents us. But that would be bad for us — the loss of a good we might have had; it might have been a very great good. But we don’t know the good until we have it, and the suffering comes first — to an eighteen year old just off to college for the first time having to re-write a long essay because one’s prose is too bad must feel like suffering, edged in doubt verging on despair. But I don’t know how to do that. If I knew how to do that, don’t you suppose I would have done it? If it were easy for me and I had a comfortable and certain way to go about doing it? But I don’t, and that’s a kind of suffering — to find my way through uncertainty and inadequacy. But the problem is… the student, the parents, the teacher, the administration, the system… ?