Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

By Andrew Spencer

Administrator’s note: SEBTS student Andrew Spencer was recently moved by an article he read that referenced seminary students and cheating. He was led to write the following open letter for the SEBTS student community and others who may be interested. We resonated with his open letter and decided to publish it at Between the Times. We hope you find it a helpful challenge, especially if you are a seminarian or collegian at SEBTS or a similar institution.

Someone recently brought an article in the May 2011 edition of Reader’s Digest to my attention. Most of the time, if I bother to read Reader’s Digest, it is just for the jokes. This article, however, proved to be worth the read, although it pained me to read its content. This was such an important article that I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

The article was a reprint from the Chronicle of Higher Education from November, 2010 entitled “The Shadow Scholar.” (It is available through EBSCO if you care to find it.) Ed Dante, a prolific writer using a pseudonym, explains how he makes over $60k every year as an author of other people’s academic work. He has written for everyone from undergrads to PhD candidates, sometimes writing complete master’s theses for students. He writes:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.

This sounds pretty dishonest, and certainly as future pastors, seminary professors, and educated laity this cannot be a significant problem at SEBTS. Every student has to sign an acknowledgment of the academic integrity policy at SEBTS before they are admitted. That statement declares that “Students should . . . maintain the highest standards of academic integrity in all of their work.” Fortunately, we Christians are immune to this phenomenon.

Or, perhaps not. The next paragraph in Dante’s article states:

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

This was the depressing paragraph, and the reason that the article was pointed out to me. What makes it worse is that Dante, presumably a non-Christian, gets it while his conservative Christian customers do not. He sees the “inherent contradiction” in seminary students cheating, and uses that as leverage to point out the hypocrisy of paying someone to write an article denouncing someone else’s sin. The fact that Dante references papers criticizing abortion, gay marriage and evolution make it clear that some of his customers must be conservatives. This isn’t the “social-gospel liberals” compromising on academic integrity; rather, this is an indictment of people who profess to believe the Bible on social issues, ignoring the blatant dishonesty of their actions.

How did we get here? I think there are three probable answers. The first is that sometimes we tend to focus on the goal, rather than the journey. We think that we will be prepared for ministry when we get our MDiv, MA, BA, PhD or whatever. Somehow, we get confused and begin to idolize the resume bullet over the real treasure: the opportunity to delve deep into the Word and theology so that we are better prepared to answer people’s questions and glorify God by serving the church effectively. Getting a degree doesn’t prepare us for anything, even the study doesn’t prepare us for ministry, really. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches that we must have a degree in some form of religious studies to effectively teach the Word. The journey to earning a degree should be helping to mold our minds into what God wants us to be. If we shortcut that by cheating, then we are sinning by cheating as well as by wasting an opportunity to grow.

The second probable answer is that some of us don’t belong at seminary. In Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon spends his second lecture discussing what the call to ministry includes. (If you haven’t read this chapter, then get it from the library and read it, then ask yourself why you are at seminary.) One description of improper candidates for ministry jumps out when I think about cheating seminarians: Spurgeon references an “exceedingly large class of men [who] seek the pulpit they know not why. They cannot teach and will not learn, and yet must fain be ministers.” If you are willing to cheat our way through seminary because you are not academically capable of getting through, then either find another path into ministry or do something else. Cheating your way to a degree so that you are “qualified” to be a pastor will leave you living a lie for the rest of your career.

A third probable answer to the question is that some of may just be lazy. Friends, if we are too lazy to do our own research, then soon we’ll be stealing our sermons from the Internet. God is not honored by the lazy person in ministry, or the lazy student of theology.

There is more to be said about this problem, and the purpose of our seminary education. However, this article from Ed Dante should give us pause as we press toward the end of the semester and maybe even graduation. It should make us stop to ask why we are at seminary, and whether we ought to be. If we have cheated, it should make us repent and sin no more; it should make us ask each other, not just how our prayer lives are, but whether we are being honest in our research and on our exams. In the end, we worship by writing our papers, just as we worship when we sing on Sunday morning. 1 Cor. 10:31 applies to your class paper as much as it does to your diet.

Andrew Spencer lives in Wake Forest. He will be graduating SEBTS in May with the MDiv and beginning PhD studies in Christian Ethics in the fall.