My first stab at a “cheating is bad” speech came when I realized the magnitude of over-the-shoulder copying on my daily trigonometry quizzes. It was epidemic. So, turning reluctantly from teacher to orator, I sat down the juniors and gave them two basic arguments.
First, cheating is bad for the cheater. It circumvents the very purpose of school, which is learning. When you cheat on homework, you deprive yourself of the chance to learn. And when you cheat on tests, you deprive me of the chance to measure your learning—and thereby to help you learn better.
And second, cheating is bad for others. How you perform in school determines your access to resources and opportunities in life. Thus, when you cheat, you’re lying to steal resources from honest folk.
A sharpshooting student can leave both these arguments riddled with bullet-holes. The first case crumbles if students doubt the value of our assignments. “What if I already know how to do the homework?” they might ask. “Then can I copy it?” Or, “What if there’s a test about material we never learned, given by a teacher who’s doing a bad job? Then it’s not me undermining my learning—it’s my bad teacher.” The second argument, meanwhile, dissolves when cheating hits a critical mass in the class. “What if everyone else is cheating?” a kid might ask. “Wouldn’t it be unfair to me if I didn’t cheat?”
If school is a journey of intellectual discovery, then you’re free to cheat whenever your teacher falls down on the job. And if school is just a pre-college sorting process, then you’re free to cheat whenever the other kids do.
Most damning of all is the fact that those two arguments appear to contradict one another. First, you’re saying it’s wrong because I shouldn’t care about credentials like GPA and college admissions; I should just care about learning. Then, you’re saying that it’s wrong because I’m gaining an unfair advantage in GPA and college admissions. Well, which is it—bad because it hurts me, or bad because it helps me?
To lay it plain: Why should I treat my own education as a journey of intellectual discovery, when you just admitted that it’s all about making more money down the road?
After years of wrestling with this, I’m only beginning to formulate my reply. It’s not just that cheating is bad for the cheater or that it’s bad for others. Cheating also inflicts a third sort of damage, hurting something more nebulous and precious than our individual self-interests.
Cheating is wrong because harms the community.
It’s wrong because it erodes trust, whittling away at our faith in one another. It’s wrong because it’s cynical, subjugating principle to opportunism. It’s wrong because tells others—and ourselves—that this isn’t a world where we play by the rules, where we deal honestly and openly with each other, but one where we bite and claw to get ahead. It’s wrong because it chips away at our capacity for selflessness, our instinct to act on another’s behalf. It’s wrong because it conceives of the world as an obstacle course to be navigated and manipulated, rather than a community to be respected, honored, and dignified.
The problem isn’t just what “cheaters” do to themselves or to “non-cheaters.” It’s what cheating, as a whole, does to the community—to this delicate, living organism that we all together comprise.
Obviously, rhetoric alone won’t turn our classrooms into utopian communes of intellectual honesty, with zero plagiarism and daily sing-a-longs. Teachers still need to take preventative measures, and to enforce swift, fair consequences for anyone who does cheat. We need to make sure kids are learning, so the “cheating-harms-you” argument carries some force, and that cheating isn’t widespread, so that the “cheating-harms-others” argument does, too. Even then, cheating is like the common cold—it’ll never go away entirely. The young people we work with are bound to make mistakes now and again. It’s part of the job’s charm, and part of why they need us.