If you love cringes – and hey, who doesn’t? – then walk into a school and try to start a conversation about cheating.
Depending on the school, I suspect you’ll find a superficial consensus (cheating is terrible! and, thankfully, our students do it very rarely!) masking deep rifts. Is the problem with cheating that it undercuts your own learning? That it steals glory from classmates in the zero-sum competition for grades? That it betrays the teacher’s trust? Are all acts of cheating equally terrible, and if not, what does that mean for “zero tolerance” policies?
We all know cheating is bad. But we seem unable to talk honestly about why.
So, I offer up these dialogue-starting cartoons, a few badly drawn meditations on the most basic question: Why do students cheat?
Is cheating a crime of character, or of opportunity?
Talking to teachers, I find they talk a lot about virtues like honesty and integrity. Good students have ’em, and cheaters don’t.
Talking to students, you hear a lot more about circumstance. “I wasn’t sure how to do it.” “I was just looking over to check my answer.” Cheaters are people who work hard at their lies; so if my copying is effortless and victimless, then how can I be a cheater?
Moral intuition is a funny thing.
If I hurt someone else to help myself, you’ll probably judge me morally deficient. Fair enough. But I’m willing to wager that your judgment depends heavily on one detail:
Am I harming that person in order to fulfill a wish, or merely to relieve a pain?
Harming someone else to bring myself joy (e.g., stealing money so I can buy a fancy car, or beating someone up so I can gain status among my friends) makes me an antisocial jerk. But harming someone else to spare myself harm (e.g., stealing money so I can afford painkilling medication, or beating someone up to avoid a beating from my “friends”) is more sympathetic. The former is moral black; the latter, moral gray.
In many classrooms, teachers would have you believe that cheating is a rare and terrible crime, like a small-town homicide. When it happens, it is so horrible and conspicuous that the criminal is brought to swift and certain justice.
There’s no two ways about it: So far as I can tell, that’s wrong. Cheating happens in every school. It’s the nature of an educational system where the assessments are both high-stakes and game-able.
Meanwhile, though, students (especially those caught in the act) would have you believe that the whole class was doing it, that cheating (particularly on homework) is as mundane as going 3mph over the speed limit.
This, also, strikes me as wrong. Cheating may be everywhere, but it ain’t everyone.
Sometimes students are lazy. I know this because students are people, and I am a people, and sometimes I am too lazy even to decide whether I am plural or singular.
But sometimes students are bewildered and afraid to ask.
I know this because… well, students are people.
One of the most fascinating justifications I’ve heard from a cheating student (via anonymous online op-ed, not in person) is that he felt perfectly righteous in cheating whenever he felt his teachers were failing to educate him.
The logic is pretty simple: “You cheated me first. I owe you nothing.”
I can think of counter-arguments. But to me, it’s a reminder that those arguments are necessary. Even to bright students, the “wrongness” of cheating isn’t self-evident.
It’s lovely to think that students are driven by curiosity alone.
It’s also lovely to think that Flintstones cars are driven by motors.
But look down at those little scurrying feet, and you’ll see what’s really providing the forward momentum. Grades are so economically important that, for most kids, they are inevitably the primary carrot and the #1 stick.
“They only care about grades” isn’t a fair knock on students, any more than “They only want to work here because we’ll pay them” is a fair knock on job applicants.