Friday, October 5, 2012

The Culture of Cheating

The New York Times recently reported on a culture of cheating at Stuyvesant, one of New York City’s most prestigious public schools and the alma mater of four Nobel laureates. In interviews, dozens of students, alumni and teachers said that an episode this summer, in which  nearly 80 juniors were caught exchanging answers to exams via text messages, might be rare at the school, but cheating on a smaller scale was a daily occurrence.

The school’s paper conducted a survey of 2,045 students in March; 80 percent said they had cheated. Usually it takes the form of homework answers copied or tip-offs from classmates who took an earlier exam. They use sophisticated modern methods, like Googling facts on an iPhone, sharing notes on Facebook, or sharing cell phone pictures of exams. “Writing on your hand, that’s kiddie stuff,” said one senior. The school has anti-cheating measures, like checking for cellphones, but sympathetic teachers dispense light punishment or none at all.

The students say the social currency at Stuyvesant is academic achievement. It’s a demanding environment, but surprisingly, the cheating takes the form more of collaboration than competition. A school newspaper editorial described it as “an act of communal resistance” to a system they feel is designed to grind them down. “I’m sure everybody understood it was wrong to take other people’s work, but they had ways of rationalizing it,” said a 2010 graduate. “Everyone took it as a necessary evil to get through.”

As freshmen, they quickly learn that they must make not just mathematical calculations, but moral ones: weighing one class against another of lesser importance, weighing the possibility of getting an A against the possibility of getting caught, weighing their integrity against the Holy Grail of a dream college and a dream job. The cheaters often feel that the answer, as one put it, “is to kind of botch your ethics for a couple things.”

Two years ago the student newspaper published an editorial called “Why We Cheat,” which acknowledged that “academic dishonesty is firmly entrenched in the culture of Stuyvesant,” but which placed the blame largely on the system itself. The editorial urged Stuyvesant to shift the learning emphasis from “quantifiable, statistical achievement towards a more humanistic emphasis on analysis and critical thought,” and to make academic dishonesty a constant part of the dialogue in class to drive home the point that “academic dishonesty is a serious transgression that poisons the learning environment.” Almost as an afterthought, the article also urged students themselves to face their academic challenges with “full moral rectitude.”

The “full moral rectitude” part is easier said than done, especially for students raised in today’s anything-goes environment in which “shame” has lost much of its power to steer people toward good behavior. Our pop culture is particularly bad about transmitting mixed messages; reality TV, for example, often rewards bad behavior.

The problem of cheating is much broader than Stuyvesant High School, of course, or even than the field of education; it’s a human failing that seeps into virtually every arena of endeavor. Conquering it and preventing a culture of cheating is a challenge that begins not with our authorities or our peers, but with ourselves as individuals.

What those Stuyvesant students need in order to confront that temptation to “kind of botch your ethics” is not just a less intense learning environment, but a deep appreciation of just how corrosive cheating is on a personal level. They need to recognize that caving in to easy rationalizations like “everyone else is doing it” is a self-betrayal that leaves their character diminished. They must take to heart the lesson that, in the end, academic achievement through cheating is no achievement at all, and leaves their personal integrity in shards.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/1/12)