What Being a Ghost Writer Taught Me About the American Education System
In case you don’t know, a ghost writer is someone who writes – essays, speeches, even whole books – for someone else to put his name on the writing, for cash.
(Only 90’s kids and John Goodman remember this.)
Some years ago, being young and having little money in my pocket, I thought it’d be neat to earn some extra cash setting up shop as a professional bullshit artist for hire. Kids and adults who didn’t want to do their own work could hire me for a reasonable fee to put together their homework. I started out charging $10 a page, but I soon learned that there are people out there who will pay as much as five times that, if not more, and I had the pleasure of working with those people time and time again, amassing quite the little nest egg for myself.
When I later moved to Asia, I discovered that there are tons of young people in the Far East desperate to go to school in the United States (ha ha, suckers…). With basically no work on my part, relying on word of mouth only, I was able to build a client list of several dozen people who would hire me regularly to write their entrance essays, fill out internship applications, and do their school work for them – as much as they could get away with, at least. My ghostwriting biz earned me enough to travel to Cambodia and tons of other fascinating places, and gave me enough capital to get an online film company off the ground.
Now, some people out there get pretty judgey when they hear about my work, but if anything, ghostwriting has taught me that the American education system is a complete sham. A few of the lessons I learned:
Lesson #1: All Those Scary Threats About Cheating Are Little More than That – Scary Threats
Everyone “knows” if you get caught using someone else’s writing you’ll fail you class, or worse, but what they don’t know is how little this actually happens. So long as the writing is original (enough), the chances of getting caught are practically zero. Now of course, if your writing style goes from near-illiterate to near-perfect in a short period of time, people will get suspicious, but if you’re smart about it, and do things like adding little errors or altering some words so it sounds more like you, you’re almost guaranteed to pull it off.
Funnily enough, as the threats get more dire – especially when people go to college – the chances of getting caught are even lower. University classes cram dozens if not hundreds of people together, and the professors are often so busy outside of class doing research that no one will know you well enough to figure out something’s fishy with your essays. Hell, most professors don’t even read or grade their own students’ work – that task falls on the lowly TA’s, who are, as a rule, tired, overworked, and cheerfully naïve.
In the unlikely case you do get caught, it is very rare for anything truly serious to happen as a consequence. In high school, you’ll get a warning, you’ll get a zero, and you might get a suspension or have your parents called. But so what? In five years, will it really affect you all that much?
In college, with its more severe threats, what generally happens to someone who gets caught is far less than what is said at the beginning of each semester; instead of getting kicked out of school, your prof will most likely make a deal with you where you take a zero on the assignment, quietly withdraw from the class, or perform a redo. American colleges, when it comes down to it, are businesses – why would they want to kick you out if that meant losing the thousands of dollars you pay every few months to do whatever it is you do in college?
Which brings us to the next lesson…
Lesson #2: American Colleges Are a Money Making Scheme
Forget all that engineered bullshit about being places of “higher learning” – today’s universities are bloated money making machines.
Despite all the whining you hear from professors about how little money they make, the average tenured professor makes $73,207 a year – $22,707 more than the national average, and that’s to say nothing of the generous benefits they receive, the large amounts of vacation time (summers, spring break winter break, Thanksgiving break…), sabbaticals, and numerous other perks that are hard to measure in mere dollars. Administrators make even more, often for less work, and that’s to say nothing of the vending machine operators, textbook companies, fast food chains, paper suppliers, print shops, and countless other businesses that butter their bread with the cash they get catering to university students; it’s very common to find everyday items like batteries or tissue paper being sold for many times their usual price in the stores colleges provide for students. Somebody’s really raking it in.
The saddest part is, for all of this cash being dropped by poor, ignorant students, there’s now less hope than ever before for some kind of pay off. In past ages it was possible to leverage a college degree into a lucrative pencil-pushing career. But now, with the insane idea that “everybody should go to college,” combined with a historically weak economy, you’re better off not paying the money or taking the debt to get that paper. According to the Economic Policy Institute, roughly 8.5% of recent grads (ages 21 to 24) are completely unemployed, with an even larger percentage (over 16%) deeply underemployed in jobs that definitely don’t require college degrees, such as slinging coffee at Starbucks or delivering pizzas.
In other words, a full 1/4 of young college grads have ended up completely shafted.
This is what you wanted to do with your life?
This is what you spent all that time and money for?
Now, most of my clients were Chinese, which means that the colleges could shake them down for even more. Chinese kids are so desperate to get an American degree that they’re willing (rather, their parents are willing) to shell out 2-5 times the regular tuition fees, even if they, well, can’t really speak English. Normally, this would be a problem, but that’s where guys like me come in: The Chinese kids get the degrees they so desperately want without having to actually learn the language or the material, and I profit handsomely in helping them with the masquerade.
The colleges, by the way, totally know what’s going on with these foreign students – they just don’t give a fuck. Why chase away your highest paying suckers…I mean, bright young scholars with a great future ahead of them?
Lesson #3: Once People Are Invested in a Lie, They Will Do Everything They Can to Protect Themselves from Reality
The title here pretty much says it, but allow me to elaborate a little. Since the 2008 economic crash, it’s become increasingly apparent that a college degree, even a graduate degree, just isn’t worth much anymore. Sure, college can be fun and it’s a good place to meet up with people of similar interests, but the chances are you will learn very little in the 4-7 years you spend there, and you will in all likelihood end up deep in debt for the privilege of pounding jagerbombs with dudebros and pretending to do your studies.
Nevertheless, it seems that the vast majority of parents and young people alike, particularly when it comes to those Asian kids I mentioned above, choose to ignore the plain truth of the matter, and continue to push forward on the insanely expensive path of the college diploma, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of young men and women have had their lives ruined by predatory student loans taken out to support a degree not worth the paper its printed on. Despite all evidence to the contrary, these people continue to believe that, somehow, the college experience will magically make riches rain upon their name.
I had grown clients in their late twenties, or even thirties, willing to pay me hundreds of dollars just to edit their grad school applications!
Lesson #4: Nobody Involved in the American Education System Really Cares About Education
In case this wasn’t already apparent from my other observations, I’ve just spelled it out for you. Oh, there are a few minor exceptions here and there, teachers who really drink the Kool Aid and genuinely want to “educate” their young charges, but these are very few, and anyway, the system is so stacked against them that their few, meager successes are always hard-won.
Haven’t you ever noticed how little relevance much of your homework and studies seem to have? That’s because your teachers are simply following a plan some grad student wrote at Columbia Teacher’s College. They don’t give a shit. Your teachers have families to take care of, groceries to buy, dogs to walk, and dinners to cook, just like everyone else. And when you combine that with the insane pressures put on them to keep in line, and the fact that there’s almost nothing they can do short of diddling you that will get them fired, there’s just not a lot of motivation for them to care above and beyond the bare minimum.
It would have been so easy for a professor or TA to catch any of my customers, but never, not once, did it ever happen. Not. Once. And neither were there any close calls, for that matter. In fact, it should have been obvious – how could Chinese students, unable to form a coherent sentence in English while speaking, suddenly turn around to become fluent wordsmiths?
Like many real world experiences, I learned more working for myself than I ever did in school. The insights I gained into human nature and the extreme depths of self-deception people can sink to were (and are) priceless. At the end of it, why do your own homework, for free, when you could be doing other people’s homework, for money?