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It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education: remote learning, shifting COVID-19 protocols, labor disputes, and low enrollment, for starters. But the most recent frenzy has been about writing, one of the only common classroom practices among the humanities and social sciences for generations.

Now, this, too, is collapsing on us. ChatGPT, an AI chatbot “that delivers information, explains concepts, and generates ideas in simple sentences,” is our newest headache. It’s the AI version of paying someone smart to write your papers.

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the existential questions that ChatGPT inevitably raises—is this the End of Writing? Will artificial intelligence take over the world? Are we doomed? Instead, I want to focus on the day-to-day. For college and university educators, urgent questions have emerged: should we ignore ChatGPT or try to teach it to our students? How can we know if they are using AI to cheat, and how can we prevent it? 

Should we stop assigning essays altogether?

But there are other, more profound questions, ones that professors and administrators tend to avoid as they squabble over the implications of chatbots for academic honesty. Why do students cheat in the first place? What is in it for them? Why are they willing to risk shame and possible expulsion?

An AI-generated essay or exam has a clear purpose for the student who uses it: a higher grade. Their need for this risky workaround could stem from many factors. Perhaps the student realizes she does not enjoy the topic of the course after all or finds herself easily bored with the material. She would rather spend her time on something else. 

Or perhaps that student works two jobs to pay her way through college, and she feels she must choose between finishing that paper and paying her tuition, rent, and car loan. The student may want a well-paying job in medicine or law and must pass a particular class to advance, even though they are ill-prepared and cannot keep up with the work.

There are lots of reasons why students cheat. However, ChatGPT is just one symptom of a more severe disease in higher education, namely, the multiple forms of meritocratic thinking—standardized testing, merit scholarships, gateway courses that cull students from majors, and grades themselves—that perpetuate and exacerbate the inequalities that students bring with them into the classroom.

These inequalities are often invisible and taken for granted by both faculty and students. But the truth is that most students cannot attend college purely for the sake of learning. Those who can are often bolstered by immense privilege, protected by a safety net of not just family wealth but also the patience, understanding, and second chances money can enable. 

For many students, college is a calculated risk. They seek value for their money—and if they are attending on scholarship, value for their time. Some may not know the consequences of taking on so much student debt so young, while others are all too aware of it. Such students may be driven by a high-stakes cultural narrative that tells them college is a rite of passage and a ticket into the middle class. Whether they know what they are getting into or not, these students understand that the stakes of failure are high and the potential benefits of succeeding are significant. 

If a college education does what students hope (and are told) it will do, good grades can maintain or improve their socioeconomic condition. They can have a “better” life, and so can their families.

This myth begins at the beginning, with the torturous and—in my opinion—cruel hazing ritual of college admissions. I recently spoke to one of my students who told me they had applied to thirty colleges. Thirty colleges. Anyone who has filled out a college application knows how many hours of work this must have entailed, not to mention the money spent on application fees.

Why? Fear: What if no one had let them in? 

College admissions, as many of us know, presents itself as merit-based. The best students get into the best schools because they have earned it. None of this is true, of course. From legacy admissions to expensive SAT tutors, admission to a selective school is pre-determined for the majority of students who ultimately attend them.

And yet, the logic of letter grades, test scores—and eventually, credit scores—teaches our children from a young age that success is cumulative and failure is permanent. Those bad grades you got in your sophomore year of high school when you experienced the worst depression of your life, struggled with an eating disorder, or lost a relative to cancer? They will determine your fate.

But despite this pervasive meritocratic gaslighting, there is one thing every student knows for sure: the more As you get, the more opportunities you will have. And the reverse is also true. Failure begets failure. Not knowing means you will never be able to know.

Take Jeanna Kadlec, who grew up evangelical in rural Iowa. She followed the meritocratic logic, working hard in school to build a chosen life. She got into college, earned scholarships, and was admitted to a PhD program in English Literature. “When I was younger, I thought college was my ticket out,” she writes in her memoir, Heretic (2022):

Not just for success, mind. I thought it would be a guarantee I wouldn’t end up like my mom: stuck in a nowhere town, financially trapped in a no-good marriage with a man who provided for you but didn’t appreciate you. An education would get me away from the country, away from small towns and small minds and the kind of God-ordained heteronormativity that chased women like me until it choked the life out of us. I wouldn’t find out until later that higher education is only another example of liberal America’s and academia’s own cruel optimism, where what is given financially, energetically, emotionally, and even physically, so overwhelmingly, and so often, exceeds the actuality of what is received.

If we teach students that academic success is the key to a happy (read: financially secure) life while also meticulously recording their mistakes and failures on transcripts that follow them everywhere forever, then, of course, they will cheat. Of course, they will use AI to write their papers. Of course, they will seek out shortcuts. 

And if we teach students that college is the only way to improve or maintain their socioeconomic status, they will necessarily privilege the performance of success over the messiness and uncertainty of real learning. In this context, students aren’t just cheating; they are making rational calculations about how to survive and, they hope, thrive.

The system of rewards and punishments upon which the American education system is built runs counter to anything we might identify as social progress. As Kadlec puts it, “For most of us, school is where we learn to maintain the status quo.” The meritocratic myth upholding these institutions punishes neurodiverse, disabled, poor, and otherwise marginalized students. It robs our students of a true education and makes equitable grading at the college level impossible. 

But it also disadvantages the ordinary student who has committed to an education she cannot afford in hopes of having a future that she can. It makes promises it can’t keep.

As conservatives outlaw critical race theory and the teaching of gender, and liberals trip over themselves trying “educate” the heartland out of bigotry, today’s college students—conservative and liberal alike—are being systematically gaslit by a set of ideals that speak to meritocracy, but not to their real lives. To fight ChatGPT, universities must reimagine higher education beyond mere pedagogical tweaks and newfangled surveillance technologies. 

After all, students aren’t the enemy here, and education should be an antidote to coercion—not the source of it.

Hannah Leffingwell is a PhD candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018. @hanleffingwell

This post originally appeared on Claire Bond Potter’s Substack, Political JunkiePotter is a Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).