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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Payez, vous aurez de bonnes notes

by Jean-Pierre Terrail, education sociologist

Pay On Line And Get Good Grades

Why do we find the proposal so offensive?

Translated Monday 9 March 2009, by Isabelle Métral

The ingenious net surfer who invited pupils to grade their teachers on-line and whose case was dismissed by the court is back with a second proposal: this time he invites pupils to pay to get their homework done. His newly opened site has caused a stir, and with good reason: the initiative advances the cult of cheating, it distorts meritocratic competition and marks a further extension of the market sector.
But moral condemnation is not enough.

The sense of outrage is no doubt understandable. But moral condemnation (as history has shown) is not enough: one takes offence at first, then one gets used to the idea, and eventually turns to something else. So rather than question that net surfer’s morality, it would certainly be of greater use to probe deeper into the reasons why his line of conduct seems so unacceptable to us and above all what makes it possible and what should be changed to make it pointless.

The episode reverberates in multiple directions: the meritocratic logic of our educational system has long since proved compatible with the persistence of social inequality. With this proposal, the mask comes off: once on-line payment for homework becomes general, pupils’ performances at school could then be exactly proportional to their families’ incomes. Forget about the meaning of knowledge and culture for the younger generations… let’s talk about results, ranking, diplomas, vocational priorities and profitable integration into the world of work. The Third Republic (1870-1940 ) had reserved access to the lycées (grammar schools) of the élite for the children of the élite. The Fifth Republic (1958-) has left it to the educational system to carry out social selection within the framework of “comprehensive” schools. Teachers do not simply have to teach; they have also been put in charge of the pupils’ systematic rating, hierarchical ranking, and orientation.

The “comprehensive” system has laid the foundation for the advancement of a utilitarian relation to knowledge, where knowledge is no more than a basis for rating, ranking and prospective professional efficiency. This dynamics is fueled by an extreme concern over job prospects, so much so that both the logic intrinsic to the passing on of knowledge and the intrinsic value of knowledge itself eventually become negligible in comparison with the exigencies of competition.

Our net surfer is simply carrying this principle to its utmost degree; his proposal throws a harsh light on the process, since he proposes eliminating all references to pupils’ knowledge in the assessment of their achievements at school. His initiative is just one more symptom of the baleful effects of managerial obsession with assessment.

French university lecturers and professors, in their protest against this obsession, have pointed out the ways their Anglo-Saxon colleagues subverted it by setting up networks for reciprocal quotation to meet the “scientific” standards as measured by the number of quotations of their papers.

Coming as it does after the explosion of the profits made by private tuition firms, payment for on-line homework is one more signal to all those who militate in favour of the democratization of our school system and, more simply, in favour of an education for the younger generations worthy of the name. It urgently invites them to raise a few simple, if shocking, questions.

The fact that competition between pupils, when it is thus institutionalized, is a breeding ground for the petty geniuses of on-line trading (whereas it is a well- known fact that the first victims of competition are working class children) suggests that in a truly comprehensive, democratic system, the basics in the core course should be taught without grading, that assessment should not involve ranking, that the pupils’ confrontation with knowledge should be free from the pangs of competition. The fight against utilitarianism in education invites us to re-open the site of pedagogic reform in the quest of learning methods founded on mental curiosity, the cultivation of the intellect for its own sake, the pleasure of mental exertion.

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