07/03/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

How Parents Ruin College


Many parents consider it their prerogative, indeed their duty, to give their college-age children academic help. Having taught undergraduate philosophy and politics, I have seen how over-involved parents can spoil, if not ruin, their children's education.

For elementary school teachers, a parent conference is a normal and often productive event. Not so for college professors. I once found myself in the bizarre situation of listening to the father of a sophomore argue that I should reconsider his (ostensibly adult) daughter's mid-term paper grade. His argument? She gave it her best effort, but the assignment was just too difficult.

It was a difficult assignment, and I am sympathetic to best efforts -- but only from students who actually do the reading and show up for class. At the same time, I also believe in second chances. I told Dad that she could rewrite the paper.

But I never got her rewrite. I got Dad's. It was obvious this wasn't the writing of a struggling 19-year-old, but rather the work of a middle-aged man trying his hand at Plato for the first time in 35 years. (His grammar was pretty good, his proofreading better than mine, but I wish he had done the reading and shown up for class.)

The situation suddenly went from an annoyance to a real problem. Passing someone else's work off as your own is an academic offense that stays on your record. There is no parent-child exemption. But who's to blame here? Would anything be gained by bringing this student up on academic charges?

I doubt the word "plagiarism" ever entered this naïve young woman's mind. Not only does she belong to a generation that uses "cut and paste" the way previous generations used the Dewey Decimal System, but her passivity throughout this affair suggested she was accustomed to leaving things in Dad's hands -- when the going gets tough, father knows best.

Dad, however, had no such excuse. I'm sure his parents never offered to write an essay for him, just as I'm sure he knew how wrong it would be to ask. I can't believe he was unaware of the ethical implications of his actions. He should have known better.

Or maybe not.

I think most parents would say there is a categorical difference between helping a child with a difficult class or assignment and deliberately aiding and abetting plagiarism. I say, however, that it is a difference in degree, not kind. It's a slippery slope from proofreading to rewriting; the motives and temptations are the same.

All parents (including me) are driven by a visceral instinct to aid and protect their children. It's hard for parents to watch their children struggle, especially if it's in their power to fix the problem. Swept up by today's culture of over-indulgence, many parents have come to interpret this instinct as a duty to help their children succeed in the least painful way (for the children) possible. Academic setbacks, they believe, hurt self-esteem and put struggling students at a disadvantage to students with parents who go the extra mile to give them that academic and psychological edge.

However loving their intentions, such parents are doing more harm than good. By keeping them on academic life support, they are short-circuiting their children's ability to take advantage of college's greatest educational opportunities.

Students who rely on their parents' help have little incentive to take full intellectual and ethical responsibility for their work. In effect, they get addicted to their parents' intervention. The more parents commit to helping their children get good grades, the more they reinforce their children's inclination to work no harder than is necessary. These students learn they need only get "close enough." Mom and Dad will take care of the rest.

No professor is going to give them that kind of deal -- for a good reason.

The price of such assistance is that these students never truly engage their studies. If the father of my student had held her responsible for rewriting the paper, she might have done the reading. She might have gone to a writing tutor. She might have come to me for help. She might have learned something.

Learning is the process of taking the jumble of information rattling around in your head, pulling it apart, and reordering it in a coherent way that is uniquely yours. You can't do this unless you take ownership of the entire process. A teacher can point you in the right direction, but true understanding can only come from within. The payoff? That beautiful "aha" moment when everything comes together.

I'm not foolish. I realize that, practically speaking, good grades are more important than intellectual epiphanies. And I know that many, if not most, students get through college just plugging and chugging along to keep their GPA high enough for law school or a good job in the tech industry. And frankly, I don't hold it against them. Academic ecstasy doesn't pay the mortgage.

Still, it's a shame when a student hasn't been allowed to develop the tools and confidence necessary to appreciate the genuine pleasures of learning. If the average price of a private college is $37,000 a year, shouldn't it be about more than just good grades?

Sadly, once a student gets to college, it might be too late to start teaching better work habits and intellectual independence. My suggestion is to start earlier, in elementary school. From day one, let's give our kids a little more room to struggle on their own. It will hurt -- for us parents, that is -- and go against our deepest instincts, but do you really think you should be calling your child's professor, like you did when she was 10?