I am not often shocked, but the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Daily Telegraph managed it the other day. It was the report on the rather bracing research at Loughborough University concerning plagiarised internet essays; as Hamlet's ghost might have put it, the hair rose on my scalp like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
The gist of the story was that cheating isn't worth the money: Charles Oppenheim, a professor of information management, ordered up some essays from companies with names like Essays-r-Us and Papers4You and found that they were lousy. One barely got a pass, one scraped a 2:2. The companies responded huffily that marking is a subjective business, and that: "We are sometimes asked to write at an overseas student level and the mistakes are done on purpose. We have thousands of essays at different levels... the client gets what heshe wants."
Gawd. I am not shocked that the essays are bad, just that no one seems embarrassed about their existence. The trade is clearly regarded as legal.
I have no law degree (though at this rate, a few quid in the right direction could presumably get me one) but I would have thought that you could cobble up a charge of inciting and abetting a fraud on the public purse. A lot of students are having most of their tuition fees paid, after all, by local education authorities. The least you would expect would be that they themselves would be forced to repay every penny the authority spent on their idle and fraudulent studenthood.
You would also expect, as a legally innocent Martian observer, that such companies would be brought to book, rather than allowed to make indignant, self-justifying remarks about how flexible they are. Yes, yes, they will piously claim that these are only "model" essays, never intended to be handed in as your own work, Oh, perish the thought: but in that case why would they offer to "write at an overseas student level", or to put in deliberate mistakes, eh? Fishy, very fishy. Bang 'em up, I say.
Because it has to be done, this essay-writing business. Some cheeky geek from EssayWorld or WritePrice or whatever had the nerve to tell the reporters that it is actually the universities' fault for not teaching students to write essays. There may be a slight point there, but schools should have broken the back of this particular task long before, and school leaving exams should have tested it, properly and without multiple-choice get-outs or downloadable coursework.
We all know that writing essays is hell - especially the first 10 lines.
For some of us, the misery doesn't end with finals: writing columns is just as bad, what with blank-page fever and scratching out and rephrasing and worrying about structure and whether it makes sense or whether it's boring (this last being something students don't have to think about too much).
Writing company reports and management analyses is presumably pretty awful too, which explains why they are so often dull and sub-literate. As for press releases, about half of them are so incompetent you could weep: packed with cliches, non sequiturs and jerky connections.
Political speeches are a bit better, having larger teams working on them, but even then the basic laws of rhetoric are shakily understood. Only the press carries the torch: journalists may be smug slimeballs, but they get their essays in on time.
What is to be done about the decline of the essay? If the quality is low even from shysters who sell them to lazy, frightened students for 300 quid a pop, we really are in trouble.
Perhaps training should just start a lot sooner. Small children at primary school write cracking essays, full of vim and originality. Obviously, something happens to them at puberty to inhibit the natural flow, much in the same way as their drawing suddenly becomes less adventurous.
All parents have trunkfuls of fabulous blue elephants and green sunsets and wild ships and surreal fish in swirling water, yet most 13-year-olds draw badly, hesitantly and without much elan.
Babies sing to themselves rather tunefully, but few teenagers do so.
Infants are poets as soon as they can speak, but decline into grunting.
Maybe it is the same with essays. It may seem a long way from "What I did in the holidays" to "Consider the impact of Italian unification on the development of European identity", but it ought to be a smoother curve than it is.
Unless, of course, you believe everything is going to the dogs. In which case there will soon be a website where seven-year-olds can download model essays on "My favourite pet", or feed in six facts on what they did in the holidays and get it back in convincing roundhand. It could happen. Anything can happen. Eeek!