I am a teacher, so “cheating” seems like a bad idea to me, however it is justified.  On the other hand, I am a teacher of political psychology, so the way a cheater explains why he is cheating is of interest to me as well.

I don’t think I want to say that cheating is always wrong.  Here’s the way I look at it.  Cheating is a violation of trust and very often a predatory act against one’s fellow students, so I think it’s almost always wrong.  Imagine “Thou shalt not cheat” as a hurdle.  It is possible to jump over that hurdle and to justify jumping over it under some circumstances.  Not many.

We’re about to look at an entire flea market of rationalizations for cheating, thanks to Vivian Yee’s piece in the New York TimesSee the whole article here.  About each of these rationalizations, we might ask, “Is this reason so powerful that it clears the hurdle?”  If the reason is that good, we might say, we ought to allow an exception to the rule.  We keep the rule.  The hurdle is still there.  But sometimes, as this metaphor puts it, it is better to violate the norm than not to.

On the other hand, the norms aren’t random formulations.  Cheating on a test affects the cheater.  It affects those who are cheated.  It affects the school where the cheating takes place.  It affects the businesses that hire the students who have learned to cheat.  The costs of abandoning the norm, “Thou shalt not cheat,” are large beyond exact calculation, but they do not make the final decision for us.

Let’s start just by considering some of the reasons given.  These were offered by alums and current students of Peter Stuyvesant High School, “new York’s flagship public school,” according to the article.

First, let’s look at an approach that might be called “better things to do.”

A senior at Stuyvesant High School said he copied a table of chemical reactions onto a scrap of paper he would peek at in his chemistry exam. He had decided that memorizing the table was a waste of time — time he could spend completing other assignments or catching up on sleep.

Of course, assassinating the three students ahead of him for the prized scholarship might be thought of as an efficiency, too.  If there are no normative considerations to take into account, the student simply lays out his options as “things that take time” and makes his choices.  In my judgment, that one doesn’t have any promise of clearing the hurdle at all.

Here’s a second kind of exculpation.

“You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.”

This notion of “taking a risk” overshadows every other notion.  “The risk” is more important than learning the material, than being fair to your fellow students, than forfeiting the self-respect that sober second thought might put in jeopardy.  Risking, apparently, is good.  Al Capone would be proud of that one.

Here’s a third kind—one that I think we need to take more seriously.

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

The teacher—to combine to two grievances this rationale contains—is a joke.  “Not cheating” would appear to be a form of respect for the teacher in this way of looking at it.  You wouldn’t cheat on a good teacher because he didn’t deserve it, but a bad teacher doesn’t merit honesty from the students.  The students, of course, will be making the judgments about which courses are worth “not cheating” for.

I hear another overtone here, though.  I hear in this student a wish not to be complicit.  If good teachers are treated with respect (the students don’t cheat) and bad teachers are not (the students do cheat), then is the student making things worse by treating the bad teachers as well as the good ones?  If the students are attentive and engaged when the lecture is good and inattentive and disengaged when the lecture is bad, won’t that help the teachers to give good lectures and not bad ones?  Is pretending to be interested in a bad lecture, being complicit?

As someone who makes his living by lecturing to students, I will say that I no longer believe students can tell the difference between a good lecture and a poor one.  Without question, they can tell the difference between one that is entertaining and one that is not.  The use of the complicity standard might put more of a burden of judgment on the students than they can reliably carry.

In a fourth kind of exculpation, several framed the collaboration as banding together against a system designed to grind them down.

This is a serious charge against the system.  Stuyvesant is a very competitive school.  The students knew that when they applied.  That means that a few will achieve the top honors and the rest will not.  Failing to achieve top honors may be stressful; it may be embarrassing; it may compromise the future you had planned.  None of those are “designed to grind them down.”

“Grind them down” doesn’t have to do with merit; only with the ability to endure punishment.  When the system has no reason for its demands—and “grind us down” refers only to the experience of the system, not to the rationale for it—then subverting it is appropriate in the way that cheating on the bad teacher is appropriate.

And, fifth, if “the system” is the enemy, why should you not help your friends instead.  Refusing to cheat is, in this picture, only a way of collaborating with the enemy.

“It’s seen as helping your friend out,” Daniel Kanovich, 17, a senior, said. “If you ask people, they’d say it’s not cheating. I have your back, you have mine.”

I have to admit that I like the sound of that language.  There is in it the kind of everyday heroism that soldiers in battle speak of.  The enemy is there, but we protect each other.  We are comrades.

Before we give up, let’s turn the corner and look at one more assessment.

 “We all want to prove that Stuy is one of the top schools in the city,” said Rachel Makombo, a freshman. “We don’t want to be looked at as a cheating school.”

Ms. Makombo starts from a different place.  Everyone benefits from Stuyvesant’s reputation.  It has always meant something to be a Stuyvesant grad.  If you got through the program at Stuyvesant, you are worth taking a risk on; you are worth hiring; you are worth admitting.  If, on the other hand, what you are getting from Stuyvesant is students who know how to cheat, but not how to work, everyone suffers.  All the graduates suffer; both those who cheated and those who refused to.

In this light, the cheaters are parasites.  Cheating is effective because only a few do it.  It is like standing on tiptoe in a crowd.  It works if you are the only one who is doing it.  The cheater gets a better relative placement in his class and still gets the benefit of the Stuyvesant reputation and he gets that courtesy of all the students who refused to cheat.

That seems powerful to me.  The guy who has his buddy’s back is a parasite as well as a friend.  The student who thinks only good teachers deserve honesty in their students is a parasite, though it may be a fear of complicity that has driven him to it.  The guy who thinks of cheating as a good way to get time for a nap is a jerk.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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3 Responses to Cheating

  1. How nice to have your blog back from vacation (did it enjoy the bike riding?). Loved this post on cheating and your comment on student’s ability to judge lecture quality. Entertaining and high quality are so easily confused with this generation of student. The director of admissions at UM, who keeps up with these things, told me that today’s students require themselves to make two judgements about things they want to judge. For example, one might say “I like tonight’s dinner,” followed by, “It is better than last night’s.” The first statement is not enough. He claims that they do this because we parents neglected to teach them discrimination by rewarding EVERYTHING. Everybody who runs a race gets a medal, not just the top finishers. So the kids don’t really trust the grown ups or even the first pass of judgement from themselves and they tack the judgement part on with a second pass. It is like needing to write “1st Place” on the back your own medal if you in fact took 1st. That you have a medal doesn’t mean more than that you showed up and ran.

  2. Bill Teague, Langhorne, PA says:

    Or you could cheat and then sue if you get caught:

    “Harvard could also face a number of lawsuits from punished students claiming that their future job prospects have been jeopardized, said Michael R. Schneider, a Boston lawyer who has acted as a consultant for students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Medical School, and Law School facing Ad Board processes.”

    Yes welcome back

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