Side Discussion: The Purpose of Education

So, I noticed that a couple of weeks ago, we had an interesting discussion that stemmed from the Harvard University cheating scandal. Some people slammed the students for losing sight of the learning goals at hand, treating the grade as more important than the knowledge and expertise to be acquired. Others chided the university and the academic system as a whole for making education so expensive that it acts more as a marketplace than a site of learning.

I think we were onto a rather important topic — after all, even once you’ve finished your time in college, the education system will have a major influence over the colleagues with whom you interact. That means that the educational mission will remain a crucial issue throughout the rest of your respective careers. With that in mind, I’d like to re-open the subject for further discussion.

At the root of the problem: what is the mission of higher education in the first place? Or what should that mission be? Do you think that administrators have lost sight of the educational goals, charging prices beyond what is reasonable for imparting wisdom and skills? Does this foster a culture that inevitably leads to cheating? What responsibility, if any, do they bear for these scandals? Given the rash of cheating incidents and similar scandals as of late, what do you think needs to be changed in order to fix matters (if, indeed, the situation actually needs to be changed)? Who has the power and resources necessary to make that administrative shift?

On the other side of things, what role, if any, do the students involved play? What should a student’s mission be while going through classes? Does the price of a college education change how the student body should treat that education, or should they resist letting such outside pressures affect their behavior? What about the number of courses that have to be taken in order to complete a degree plan? And if everyone else is already cheating, does choosing to take part in the practice simply level the playing field? Further, how does the university’s mission relate to a student’s behavior — whether or not the school openly admits what its true goal is?

Taking it in a different direction, how do incidents like this change the value we place on a university degree? Should businesses seek degree holders in their hiring processes, or do cheating scandals like this only prove that a degree is meaningless, if any challenging courses along the way may have been fraudulently cleared? Or is there an assumption that a graduate at least acquired some skills and knowledge in college, even if there was some cheating along the way? For that matter, if the cost of a college education is prohibitive for some potential students, are employers just rewarding those who can “purchase” extra credentials? (In contrast, what are your thoughts about the various scholarship and student loan programs across the country and around the world?) In sum, what effect does cheating have on the value of a degree, and what, if anything, should or can be done to boost that value?

Finally, is the cheating trend limited to the education system, or do you see it happening in other areas, as well? What would a larger cheating movement throughout our society signify? How do you think such a tendency might develop — or, if it’s already occurring, how did it happen? Is that something that anyone could actually stop? Or do you think that such an issue needs to be addressed at all?

I may add my opinion later, but I want to give all of you the opportunity to deliberate amongst yourselves first. I look forward to seeing a lively back-and-forth discussion. So without further ado, what do you think?

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3 responses to “Side Discussion: The Purpose of Education”

  1. liv4creativity says :

    There are a lot of questions to answer in this post. I believe the root of the problem is placing too much emphasis on measuring results. We need to ask ourselves what is the purpose for an education? To gain new knowledge, skills, and abilities to better ourselves and the world or to compete for a letter value that does nothing but reflect how well we did in a certain system?

    One of my classes last semester focused on quality control and the practices of W. Edwards Deming. Deming wrote how ranking people hurts more than helps. Ranking produces winners and losers. Nobody wants to be a loser, but in the current academic system, we are all losers unless we get the coveted A. Though ranking can be a good thing when the focus is on improving. Again, we need to know the purpose for getting an education.

    As a student, I want to learn and eventually have a career with what I learned in college. I do not want future employers to view me as a cheater just because other college students are cheating their way to their degree. I have received many scholarships for my education and do not want to do something drastic like cheating to cause my anonymous beneficiaries to stop donating money. Those beneficiaries have made an investment in me and the other students who have received the same scholarships. It is my obligation to invest my time and education back to the community just as others have done for me.

    I have seen cheating happen in places other than the education system. Cheating is a bad cycle that can be stopped from within. Once society sees cheating as a bad thing, resisting the urge to cheat will become easier.

  2. Rachel Moore says :

    As a college student, I will say that I think colleges charge too much. Discounting that, I still think they charge too much. Tuition had increased tremendously, and I can’t think of a good reason why. There hasn’t been a proportionally increasing size of new students or teachers, so what is the money for?

    I think businesses should still look for the college degree. Even cheaters must have learned something, and I think there are more honest people out there that didn’t cheat who should not be ignored because some people were didn’t want to do their own work. People invest their time to learn what they can, and to see that investment being discredited from cheaters is wrong.

    I think something needs to be done about cheating. I can’t say what, because I don’t know of a good plan. Being expelled for cheating is a good deterrent, which should be continued, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe a new way to take tests or do assignment would work better.

  3. brianbritt says :

    I believe that I promised to conribute my opinion on the subject (with which you can feel free to argue if you choose), so here you go.

    Yes, the cost of college has increased (scholarship programs and student loans notwithstanding). And yes, our society has become riddled with cheating, from athletes to singers (see: lip-synching) to professionals in the workforce who plagiarize Wikipedia without batting an eye.

    Certainly, these things are true. And for each one of us, they shouldn’t matter.

    First, on a fundamental level, the cost of college isn’t a charge for a degree. Or at the very least, someone who thinks that has a poor perspective on the point. Because the degree is only a symbol. It represents what you’ve learned and what you’ve accomplished over years of study. The college degree is designed to make it so that you don’t have to give 40 extra lines on your resume to indicate the knowledge you’ve built; the one-line degree is a much easier indication for employers, and it’s a clear milestone that you can have as a point of personal pride, as well.

    If the degree is a symbol of what you’ve learned and achieved, then cheating your way through college makes that symbol meaningless. It degrades the value of that degree, eventually making it a symbol for nothing. After all, even if a person was only caught cheating once, it begs the question of what other corners they cut along the way. Not to mention the effect on the institution and the realm of higher education as a whole. If you have the same degree as someone who rampantly cheated throughout their education, their behavior casts doubt on your degree, as well.

    (And don’t try to tell me that flagrant, willful cheaters don’t exist. I met a few of them during work toward my bachelor’s degree, and their willful ignorance of any semblance of ethics shocked me.)

    That brings us to the other point. I think we can all agree that a lot of people are cheating nowadays, in a lot of different areas. Sure, it seems like it’s happening more in college than ever before — or maybe it’s just that more people are getting caught. But we’re also seeing it with athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, entertainers lip-synching through live performances, quality control professionals willfully passing defective products in order to look better, journalists and executives plagiarizing Wikipedia, and even university researchers plagiarizing others and outright forging data.

    These things are all true, and they’re sickening. After all, one person’s malfeasance can cripple our faith in the “heroes” we idolize, ruin successful commercial enterprises, or set research back decades as others follow the dead-end line of study that started with a lie.

    These effects should certainly be recognized. But they should not affect how we conduct ourselves.

    For one thing, if we have such hatred for the havoc that cheaters like this can wreak, why would we want to be responsible for adding to the mess? Even if it’s “only” a class paper or test, we’ve seen how cheating scandals can shake the foundation of a university and scar its reputation, humiliating thousands of other graduates who dedicated years of hard work in the pursuit of the same skills, knowledge, and accolades. These effects only magnify in the workforce, when the consequences go far beyond mere GPA.

    Beyond that, it’s somewhat shocking that “everyone else is doing it” would be cited as an excuse for cheating. We’re seeing that across the board — how many times have we heard a professional athlete say that doping is necessary in order to maintain the competitive edge that others are already exploiting? From what I can see, this indicates a clear decline in the moral fabric across our society. It’s been very strange to see people grow to treat ethical and moral standards as flexible, as though they’re dependent on the situation.

    And more than that, it shows that those people are weak individuals who cave under the slightest challenge. As soon as things get difficult, they cast aside their own moral standards in order to get ahead. Throughout life, there are countless challenges that are far more difficult than finishing a paper on time or passing an exam. Surviving the classroom is nothing compared to surviving life as a whole.

    It’s sad to see people throw away what they believe in because they can’t handle a minor obstacle, or because they just don’t feel like trying. It is the truly strong person who vigorously upholds his personal moral code, regardless of the situation or the momentary convenience to be gained from casting aside oneself.