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A Cheating Heart: There Are Reasons, But No Excuses

September 28, 2012, 2:48 pm

Did Bernie Madoff’ cheat on tests in high school?

I am in Ithaca for a conference honoring a distinguished scholar. This conference began — as many do — over an evening of drinks and informal chat as we awaited the proceedings that would commence today.   After the usual introductions (this includes assurances that one has met before — which is likely among historians, even if neither of us is sure where we met) folks got down to the business of launching conversations and extracting wine from cunning banks of mechanical dispensers.

One topic was the prevalence of cheating among college students.  Specifically we discussed this article in the New York Times (9/26/2012) in which students at Stuyvesant, a prestigious New York public high school, opened up to a reporter about how they cheat and why cheating is necessary to academic success. Read it and weep.

I think our group would have agreed with a letter writer in today’s paper who noted:

What I find so disturbing is not that students cheated. It is the rationalization, utilitarianism and entitlement used to justify their actions. I fear that this is something that children don’t outgrow. Instead, it lays the foundation for a Faustian bargain with far more dangerous consequences.

Word. What I find more disturbing is how many adults in the article made excuses for student cheating, blaming it on the admittedly pointless regime of testing that students are exposed to, a regime that replaces learning with memorizing $hit you need to know for the test. This undoubtedly plays a role, but are we really ready to make an argument that cheating is a form of resistance, particularly when it is done with the specific goal of being admitted to a selective college?

Faculty at Stuyvesant don’t seem to think that cheating should hold a student back — or at least, that’s what the students who were interviewed think. In one case, a student caught cheating was not turned in because she had already been admitted to an Ivy League school (did the teacher ever wonder how the student got the grades that achieved that result?) “[In] general, [Stuyvesant] students said that harsh discipline was not the norm and that many teachers were so understanding of the pressure students faced that they would hand out lighter punishments for cheating.”

How did we reach a consensus that cheating is an appropriate way to deal with academic stress?  If so, why is it appropriate? And what are the consequences of making cheating integral to the culture of excellence? Imagine if Nixon had explained the Watergate break-in by telling us he was really stressed out about the election.

The recent cheating scandal at Harvard is a great example of privileged students who blame everyone but themselves. 125 Harvard students have claimed that it was the fault of the exam, the TA’s and the professor that they cheated on a government course that was, itself, a notoriously easy course. Selective school curricula are larded with such courses, what we used to call “guts” in New Haven. They are a kind of sub-curriculum of easy A’s and even easier B’s designed to bolster the GPAs of the medical and law school bound and keep the descendants  of George W. Bush from flunking out. Show me a Phi Beta Kappa recipient and I’ll show you a student with a nose for gut courses.

In any case: the press reports on said government course suggest that there may have been problems with it, but these allegations (made by students) are not based on any journalist having access to the readings, assignments or lectures. The real problem appears to be that, easy as the course was, it wasn’t easy enough. Students who expected to be able to do well (perhaps even get an A) without attending class or discussion sections were soon disappointed.

The teaching evaluations, according to the New York Times (8/31/2012), were

filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”

OK, so Stuyesant students cheat so they can get to Harvard; and Harvard students cheat so they can go to — Harvard Law?

I would like to point out that, while I do not lack empathy, it is difficult to me to summon it up for students who have been given the keys to the kingdom and have decided that they are so meritorious that they are no longer required to work as other do to maintain their privilege. This strikes me as particularly strange since all the students around them aren’t cheating.

Recently, a professor at another prestigious school resigned after plagiarism surfaced during a tenure review. Some students at this institution apparently blame the college for a pattern of unethical behavior on the part of the author that, as it turns out, had been initiated at least as far back as graduate school. This article in the college’s newspaper argues that the scholar plagiarized — extensively and repeatedly — because s/he was not working in a “safe and understanding place” where people feel “comfortable coming forward with their academic problems.”

It should be noted that the scholar has never made this claim, has taken complete responsibility, and chose resignation rather than appealing the case. Hence, one suspects that the students who wrote and were interviewed for the article were actually writing about themselves.

The above accounts suggest that cheating counts as normal behavior for students in our most prestigious schools, a narrative that is bolstered by adults who anxiously wonder why good kids turn bad. (Few speculate about what  happens to the kids who don’t cheat and, as a result, get the thin envelope from Fancy Public High and Ivy U.) Even critical accounts of cheating scandals seem to go out of their way to privilege student explanations about why cheating is a reasonable response to unfair expectations imposed upon them by teachers, by college admissions committees, by parents, or by the hyper-competitive atmosphere of the school (that they themselves chose to attend.) This is the equivalent of an athlete explaining that s/he was “forced” to dope because everyone else was doping (cycling) or because other athletes are getting better results through conventional, legal training and this evens the playing field.

Absent from many of these account is any speculation about the longterm consequences of normalizing cheating, or when the students plan to stop cheating. I would love to see a study, based on interviews of convicted felons in the financial industry, politics, athletics and other high-status professions. I would like to see narratives that describe in detail when their cheating began and specifically, if and why they cheated in school.  Did Bernie Madoff begin his contemptuous treatment of others as an ambitious boy who saw no reason why his progress should be inhibited by a test he hadn’t studied for?

When a student begins cheating s/he may believe that it is a temporary measure, but confirmed cheaters may be those who believe that they really are more deserving than other people and shouldn’t have to prove it. Others may be students who dig themselves in so deep that they no longer have confidence that their work can compete with other students’ work.  Many of the students quoted in the Stuyvesant article seem to have created a new ethical framework in which some classes and teachers deserve cheating behavior, and others do not. Becoming a self appointed review committee, students claim to have shifted honest study and examination habits to the classes that they have decided they value.

But what makes them think that, because they affirm it, that any of us believe that they don’t cheat in all their courses? After all, they are admitted liars and cheaters.

A bigger question about cheating is — how does this play out in the life beyond school? Can a person cheat and ultimately be successful? Is it ok for students to decide what is and is not worthwhile for their education and still succeed in a world where other people ultimately make the rules?

I would say no.  I have seen at least one manuscript submitted for a tenure review that was plagiarized, and I am far from the only one.  A loose thread in a tenure or promotion review, pulled slightly, reveals more plagiarism in other published work, and sometimes a plagiarized dissertation. (I occasionally read a story where someone several decades into a career is discovered to have submitted a dissertation, written by someone in, say, German, and translated it into English.) Depending on how you feel about such things, what happens  is either a tragic story or just desserts, but the point may be that early short cuts and undetected cheating meant that this person never actually learned how to do the research and writing required to make a career as a scholar.

Academics sometimes continue to function surprisingly well in the classroom despite having cheated their way through these milestones, perhaps because they are great readers. But how about the Stuyvesant student mentioned in the New York Times who didn’t think it was worth her while to memorize the periodic table? Will s/he ever learn the self-discipline to complete such a task? And do you want an ER doctor who passed anatomy tests, not by memorizing the parts of the body, but by cheating? Who has to look up which one of your facial nerves might be compromised by a particular procedure?

We tend instead to focus on the here and now, and particularly the competition for admission to elite schools. One argument is that students cheat because the testing regime implemented in the last decade has been so punishing, and competition for coveted spots in good schools is increasingly based on the results of such tests. I don’t disagree: as Chris Hayes has pointed out, the meritocracy is in crisis and this is but one symptom. Even secondary teachers are cheating on standardized tests (often led by the principles who fear that undoctored tests will force a school to close.)

But this knowledge should lead to critique and reform — not assuming that cheating among elite students is something for which we should muster empathy, and not assuming that only school is corrupted by such cheating. When a person cheats — whether it is faking research in the lab, cribbing primary material from another person’s book, collaborating on an exam in a way that the professor did not think to prohibit — that person is not learning.

And nowhere in either of these articles about elite schools can I find that conversation.

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