As I was reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about plagiarism from an administrative perspective. It includes suggestions about heading off plagiarism, and pointed out the need to define plagiarism and teach proper citation practices.

The author said faculty protest that they shouldn’t have to teach those basic things, because students should have learned that already. The response not only explained why students may not have learned those basic things but also shed some light on at least one of the reasons students come to college unprepared to do college work.

First, many students do get out of high school never having written an essay that involves research or working with sources. This is happening more and more because of the state-mandated tests students have to take to earn a high school diploma. These tests usually do not require that students cite anything, so teachers who have their salaries or continued employment tied to the test scores of their students do often focus on teaching for the test.

Among other things, high school should prepare a student to reason and to work independently. College work requires that–it’s not just about shoveling more information into their heads, but giving them the tools to think critically.

Unfortunately, misguided efforts at accountability scuttle that very important function of high school, and similar efforts currently aimed at higher education will likely make the situation worse. At a time we bemoan the fact that students aren’t learning much in college (Student Tracking Finds Limited Learning in College), we certainly don’t need to discourage the development of independent, critical thinking skills at any level of education. But this is what happens when we treat schools like factories, and when we force all schools to hue to the same standardized tests, they become factories.

The teachers are as frustrated with this as anyone, based on conversations I’ve had. So let’s not blame them, or even the administrators who simply struggle to comply with mandates forced on them by politicians. Even the politicians are (ineffectively) trying to address public concerns.

We, as a society, need to take a step back–for the time being, don’t just do something, sit there–and examine what we really want an education to do. It’s not just about jobs. Education, properly done, will lead to jobs, but it will do that because education will lead to a higher level of functioning as a human being in a complex society. That is difficult to standardize on a test, but it’s the only thing worth pursuing.

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