Clairvoyant I am Not, But Still

. . . I swear I didn’t see an advance copy of this post, about the “culture of cheating” at Stuyvesant High School before I put up that last post.  I ran across this post on plagiarism at Amherst this morning, and had thought about doing yet another update to add the link, but seeing two such posts on the same day seemed to suggest it might merit its own post, in a lions-and-tigers-and-bears-oh-my sort of way. Hence:

Let’s be honest about what we’re talking about here.  Pretty much every last one of the students at Stuyvesant would be a legitimate contender for valedictorian at almost any other high school in the country.  You don’t just get randomly zoned for Stuyvesant.  It’s one of those things on your high school transcript that admissions officials at every half-way decent college in the western world will recognize.  No kidding; I’d wager that a graduate could apply to Balliol and whoever it is who decides such things would know what Stuyvesant means on that applicant’s grade sheet.

So when cheating is simply viewed as a fact of life by such a large proportion of the students, that’s a problem.  These are the kids who oughtn’t need to cheat, or feel the need to cheat.  They’re the kids who are supposedly bright enough to understand on a moral plane why cheating is wrong, why it is corrosive to the very system that they are relying on to give them that leg up.  They’re supposed to understand on some level that if word gets around that cheating is how it’s done at Stuyvesant, suddenly that magical name to obtain the lustre of which they and/or their parents have sacrified so much in terms of time, money, and energy . . . becomes nothing more valuable than a high school diploma from P.S. Whatever-the-Hell.

Apparently they’re not.  Or rather, they’ve illustrated once more, for even the slow-witted out there, that “education” and morality are entirely severable concepts.  I mean, if “education” were enough in itself to guarantee a world of amity, progress, civility, and elevation, then we’d never have had a Nazi Germany.  The national socialists would never have been voted into power by the people who were at the time probably the most over-educated, over-cultured crew on the planet.

But in truth the rot evidenced by this article goes even deeper.  One of the reasons, the many reasons, why the Soviet Union fell apart was the universality of “tukhta,” sometimes spelled “tufta.”  Navy veterans will recognize it as the systematized practice of “gun-decking.”  Solzhentisyn, Shalamov, Dolgun, and Bardach, and the others cited in those men’s books, all contain descriptions of the practice, or illustrations of it, or recount themselves grasping at it to “fulfill the norm” and so avoid starvation and death (it’s not a coincidence, surely, that almost all the survivors’ memoirs are written by prisoners who managed to spend large portions of their sentences in the camps working in the medical wards). 

Under tukhta as practiced, a work gang was supposed to produce so-and-so-many cubic meters of timber per day, or however many cubic meters of ore at the pithead, or X-hundred bricks, or whatever else.  The daily norm was set by a person known as the “norm setter” and a norm setter was the difference between life and death.  They usually opted for hopelessly optimistic norms, which meant the prisoners had no realistic way to fulfill them, which under the system introduced into the camps by Naftaly Frenkel produced a concomitant reduction in caloric intake for the work crew falling short.  So what to do?  One stole from other work crews (especially the Article 58s); one bribed the tally-man (shades of the Banana Boat Song); one just falsified the documents.  And so one’s own crew was credited with a fulfilled norm or even better, an over-fulfilled norm which meant “Stakhanovite rations” for the fortunates.  As for the crews whose output got stolen?  In the language of Gulag, “You die today; I’ll die tomorrow.”  But wait, what happens when the timber, several thousand cubic meters short, is sent downstream to the mill and they’ve got papers showing all that timber that’s simply not floating out in the river?  Answer:  More tukhta.  And when it comes time to load it onto freight cars or barges?  The same.  And on and on and on.  A huge proportion of the Soviet population learned to survive on tukhta.  It wasn’t that they perceived it as a response to a “system intended to grind them down,” as the poor little students at Stuyvesant complain.  Successfully practicing tukhta was in the most literal way imaginable the difference between surviving your “tenner” or your “quarter,” or ending up as a corpse forever frozen in the permafrost of the Kolyma basin, or in some clearing in the taiga.

What tukhta meant was that in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t trust anything or anyone, beyond what you actually could see with your own eyes and touch with your own hands.  At all.  If I contract for so-and-so many tons of sand suitable for mixing the cement on my project site, how can I be sure my vendor does not deliver me something that is 30% cinders, ground glass, or something else?  How do I know that my foreman has not been paid to turn a blind eye as the defective material is mixed up into something I think is “cement” but is really just holding the concrete blocks apart . . . for the moment.  Come to think of it, how do I know the building I live in was not built to such “specifications”? 

There’s a telling scene in MiG Pilot, the story of Lt. Belenko, who flew his MiG-25 to Japan in the 1970s.  He was quite literally a poster boy for the Soviet Air Force, one of their elite.  Had he stayed in and not fallen afoul of some political trap, he likely would have worn multiple stars. There’s a description of the apartment assigned to him.  Neither the building nor his apartment would have passed electrical or plumbing codes in any western country, in any jurisdiction.  Its masonry would never have been accepted by any sober architect and engineer.  And that’s what they had available for the cream of their crop.

The Soviet Union literally fell apart, physically and politically.  Think about it:  A sovereign nation, without a single foreign troop on its soil, possessed of the world’s second most-powerful military apparatus, and with hordes of sympathizers in the opposing camp, hangs it up, shuts out the lights, and goes home because the train just won’t move any more.  A huge, an enormous part of the explanation lies in the practice and internalization of tukhta by the general population.

Within the past several months it has come to light that LIBOR, one of the world’s most-frequently relied upon benchmark interest rates, has been thoroughly cooked for years now.  In fact, it turns out that our current Treasury Secretary (you may know him as TurboTax Tim), when he was president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, knew that LIBOR was being gamed, and said nothing about it.  Nothing.

China’s economy is showing signs of unravelling.  Over at Zero Hedge they’s got a disturbing post on the phenomenon of phantom collateral for massive bank loans.  Either the stuff just doesn’t exist, or the would-be secured creditor discovers that its collateral has been hypothecated eleven times already.  Those loans are now bad loans.

And all of this, every damned bit of it, is nothing more than adults spinning out the same dynamics we see going on at and discussed in reference to Stuyvesant High School.  As a final bit of encouragement, may I add that these children, for whom cheating is simply a tool in the box to be deployed or not according to whatever calculus they find expedient, are among the ones who one day will occupy positions that will affect each and every one of us others?  At some point will the rest of us become like the dog in the fable, that watched as its fellows gobbled up his master’s meat and finally decided that if the meat was gone in any event he might as well get his?

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