How Illegal?

Published: September 28, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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Some students today are getting so good at rationalizing it’s scary.

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

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?”

On one level, they almost sound as good a Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff: “F$#k my victims. I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years.”

Or lobbyist Jack Abramoff: “They realize that spending millions to save billions is just good business.”

(I said, “…almost.”)

According to a story in the New York Times (Elite Students Describe the How and Why of Cheating, Sept. 26), rationalizations are just some of the “calculations many students at Stuyvesant [High School in New York] …learn to make by the middle of their freshman year: weighing two classes against each other, the possibility of getting an A against the possibility of getting caught, keeping their integrity against making it to a dream college.”

Unfortunately, the justification and opportunity to cheat is growing.

“…more than three dozen students, alumni and teachers said that large-scale cheating, like an episode in June when 71 juniors were caught exchanging answers to state Regents exams through text messages, was rare at Stuyvesant. But lower-level cheating, they said, occurs every day.”

“Many classes have private Facebook groups that students use to exchange advice or, sometimes, to post full sets of answers for classmates.”

Students call it, “collaboration.” (That’s a new one for my collection.)

In 2010, The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted another of its regular surveys on honesty and integrity in 43,000 high schools around the country, and the results are unsettling.

“…more than half of students [admitted] to cheating on a test during the past year, one-third of more than twice. One in three students admitted to using the Internet as a source for plagiarizing assignments…. 21 percent saying they stole from a parent or other relative, 18 percent from a friend. Lying was also frequently cited, with 48% of boys and 35% of girls admitting that they sometimes lie to save money. Eight in 10 students also confessed to lying to a parent about something significant.

“Nevertheless,” the study says, “89 percent of students surveyed said that being a good person is more important than being rich, and 92 percent said they believe that their parents want them to do the right thing.”

Ethicist Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey California, which conducts the study every two years, points out that “In self-reporting, there’s a natural tendency to understate anything that could be embarrassing or negative. Roughly 25 percent of students,” Josephson says, “confessed they lied on at least one or two survey questions.” So, the figures could actually be higher.

While the numbers show some improvement over similar figures in 2008, “92 percent of students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character.”

So, what’s the solution?

“No one doubts that pressure on teachers, students, as well as administrators is greater than ever,” I wrote in a 2010 report to a local high school principal after facilitating an ethics discussion among several classes. “However, teachers, students, as well as parents need to increase their awareness of the ethical dimension of choices. They need to make a stronger commitment to making the right choices in their lives if we want to see a decline in cheating and ethics-related scandals in the country.”

I began each class by asking a series of questions. In the last I asked students to agree or disagree with the following statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do in order to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Only 20 percent of 120 students disagreed with that statement.

The task of including character education in the curriculum may not be easy, but the consequences of not including it is more troubling to consider.

During one class discussion, I engaged the students in a scenario where, “As ethicists,” I told them, “they were asked by the commissioner of baseball whether or not slugger Mark McGuire, accused of using drugs, should be allowed into baseball’s Hall of Fame.” Although a firm majority felt that McGuire should not be considered, a few students believed that if other players cheated, why shouldn’t he?

I then asked, “If you could take a drug that would improve your test-taking ability by 25%, but the drug was illegal, would you take it?”

While most in the class took more time to consider this question, one student raised his hand and asked, “How illegal?”

UPDATE: In a letter to the NY Times Editor (Sept. 28), Nathaniel Giraldi writes: “When the difference between a 93 and a 94 means the difference between an Ivy League school and a slightly lower ranked one, is it any wonder that students cheat?

“It is the mechanism of grading itself that incentivizes cheating. It is gullibility regarding grading percision that lets the distinction between a 93 and a 94 mean something material about the respective grades’ owners.”

So now it’s the, “I-had-to-cheat-because-the-grading-system-is- flawed” excuse. Niiiiice.


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