The Cheating Plague

A Very Concerned Non-CompliantSeptember 14, 2018Competition and AchievementFeatures

Artwork by Anya Dunaif

Question: What is honor? Honor is an abstract concept used to express many different ideas. Generally, honor refers to moral integrity. We can ask: What does honor actually mean?

The US Naval Academy uses a far more workable definition, with at least some guidelines. There are three major types of honor violations: lying, stealing, and cheating.

Historically, too, honor has been important. From the Middle Ages, with codes of chivalry and bushido (boo-SHE-doh), men were expected to fight honorably. Later, governments expected citizens to conduct affairs honorably. Many schools have mottos dealing with honor and integrity.

Today, however, the system of honor is crashing and burning in American schools. Although cheating has always been an unfortunate part of schools, today cheating has reached new highs, or lows. Perhaps more surprisingly, cheating seems to be tolerated by teachers and administrators. Rampant cheating has spread far and wide, and has taken root in many top-notch American educational institutions.

Statistics speak best. Some statistics say that over 95% of high school students admit to cheating or some form of “questionable activity,” whether it be copying homework or cutting and pasting answers from the Internet. If my experience at school is general, this figure seems conservatively low. Not everybody cheats on tests, and this is part of the problem, copying homework is much more common and letting others copy is even more prevalent. At my current high school, the scourge is so rampant that the few non-cheaters are viewed as abnormal.

There are many different types of cheating. The ways of doing so, already numerous a generation ago, has exploded today because of the technological revolution. A cheater has many tools in his or her arsenal, including notes written on hands, cell phones, copying from computers, discussing tests with friends from earlier sections, copying from more astute classmates, directly observing another’s answer sheet, or getting another student to do the work for that student. All of these techniques and more are commonplace at some of America’s top schools.

The main difference between today and a generation ago, though, is not the methods but the attitude. Early cheaters were punished severely, up to and including their lives. Today, cheaters proceed without fear. Cheating, even organized cheating, is tolerated en masse in many of America’s schools. More than a technique for dishonesty, cheating has become a way of life.

Consider the week most recent in my memory. One teacher gave a take-home examination, but was absent the next day. While the substitute teacher sat at the front of the room refusing to care, students worked on the problems together and copied one another’s solutions.

During another test, the room was so loud with students’ illegal activities, from whispering to electronic devices, that it was very hard to see how the teacher could not notice. One student in that class was caught with contraband notes and took the zero, but with a discreet wink and a nod saying that the test grade would be dropped in the end. In other words, no consequence. All week, I’ve seen homework and tests copied, even right under the teacher’s nose. Despite constant warnings of roving eyes and the like, no students are ever caught and failed for the homework, test, or course.

Kids are not necessarily known to be paragons of moral integrity, but this trend certainly represents a major decay. Perhaps more alarming, however, is the attitude of teachers. Of the eight teachers I have now, only one actively seeks to catch and punish cheaters. From what I hear, this teacher seems to be unique in the school.

The only way cheating can be stopped is if the teachers want it to stop. The extent to which teachers want to stop the madness is revealed by what happens when a teacher actually catches or suspects kids of cheating. Either teachers are ridiculously bad at catching cheaters, which I doubt, or they do not exert all of their capabilities.

The administration’s attitude towards cheating is, if anything, more astonishing. At my old middle school, one of the top schools in the city, one kid decided to pen a piece on cheating for an assignment to be hung on a bulletin board. After polling the eighth grade class, he concluded that over 50% of kids admitted to cheating regularly. Before publication, the principal of the school was perusing articles and came across this article. Upset by the revelations, he demanded that the article remain unpublished and the kid write a new piece. In other words, he covered up the results in order to preserve the school’s reputation.

Schools do not seem to care about cheating, yet they do strictly enforce ridiculous policies that matter very little in comparison. My school spends more resources policing hallways to make sure kids are congregating on the right floor than to ensure that cheaters are caught and punished. A cell phone ringing during an exam means a zero and a trip to the principal’s office, but cheating means nothing. Students soon realize that the school has ordered their priorities, with regard to cheating. They become more emboldened by their teachers’ and administrators’ lack of care, and start to flaunt the rules even more flagrantly. Organized cheating begins to take root: a cheating conspiracy may begin.

A history teacher in my middle school encountered this problem. For economy of time, this teacher simply checked that the nightly homework was completed, but did not read it. To attempt to stop cheating, the teacher required the parent to sign the homework every night. Once students saw that homework was not being checked, they saw no reason to do the homework. Instead, they mobilized a conspiracy. Three of the smartest students in the class were tapped for the job. They would alternate doing the homework. Whichever student did the homework would then disseminate it to most of the rest of the grade via instant messenger. The students would then either disguise the origins of their homework to gain the parental signature, or simply outright forge the signature.

Eventually, late in the year, the teacher discovered the plot and became very unhappy. Surprise-collecting an assignment, she was able to ascertain exactly who and how many people were involved.

However, she did not know the full scope of the plot. She handed out letters to those guilty which were supposed to be signed by parents The students simply forged the signatures and did the next few assignments on their own. Eventually, when the teacher ceased to collect assignments, it was business as usual.

An even more egregious conspiracy is to steal and distribute an exam before the test date. This happened in both freshman and sophomore history finals at my high school this year. A student on good terms with the history department administration was left unattended in the office, where he sighted the prototype exams. One version of the story goes that he made copies of the exams, which he promptly hid, and replaced the originals. He was then able to sell the copies to dozens if not hundreds of students.

Another interesting and important issue is the perspective of the kid who permits cheating. Although many cheaters plagiarize off the Internet, most copied homework comes from classmates. According to the Naval Academy’s Honor Code, providing materials to cheat is just as criminal as copying the materials. In other words, cheating encompasses providing and copying.

In schools, this is not true. Kids are being sent the opposite message. Providers are caught just as often as copiers but punished much less harshly. Perhaps the teachers believe that the providers are more diligent or more academically talented. Though this is true, they have still violated their honor and deserve punishment.

Today, providing has become very much a way of life. The State of Americans: This Generation and the Next (Free Press, 1996) cites that in 1969, 58.3% of high school students let someone else copy their work. By 1989, that number had ballooned to 97.5% When kids fail to do their homework, they ask me if they can copy mine. When I reply in the negative, they look at me somewhat astonished, as if it is ridiculous to take a stand against cheating. When I refuse to join test-cheating conspiracies, which is often, I get that same strange look, like there is something dreadfully wrong with me.

This is perhaps one reason why cheating is so common: peer pressure. Under such circumstances, many kids would give in. Friends seem more important than ideals and character codes. Even if a student prizes his or her own ideals higher, it is extremely difficult to say no.

Some kids think the work is unimportant and they will end up in high places either way. They might as well spend their time doing other things rather than wasting it on work that doesn’t need to be done. They don’t care if integrity gets trashed in the process. It is a vindication of Machiavelli: the ends justify the means.

Another potential reason is laziness. Kids see no reason to do their own work when somebody else could do it for them. The time saved could be put to use doing something kids enjoy like watching TV, video games, socializing. In other words, kids cheat because they want to do other things, and they can.

Perhaps some people cheat because they are under pressure to do well. Recently, things have become more competitive. Because of limited quotas it is often difficult to gain admission to choice colleges. Generally, only students with high averages have a shot at Harvard or MIT. As spots become more and more coveted, people turn to cheating.

Competition, however, is a part of life. For contracts, jobs, elections, competition is found everywhere. Difficulty in high school is regarded as character building for life. In cheating, to get ahead dishonestly, kids are only preparing themselves to cheat further, to cheat their whole lives. It’s possible that they will eventually get caught by some honest soul and be severely punished. If they’re never caught, then they may lead a dishonest, but successful, life. What’s really wrong with that? It’s now time to answer the big unanswered question in the article: why cheating is bad.

It’s now time to answer the big unanswered question in the article: why cheating is bad.

Consider a general case at first: the whole world. Today the world seems to be filled with cheats and scandals and wrongdoings. There are lies, there is trickery, and there is bombing of innocent civilians. It seems that the world is abandoning honor. If nobody else is conducting their affairs honorably, then why should the United States follow suit? This is a combination of peer pressure and pressure to get ahead by changing our ways.

A difficult question to answer, that is true, as well as a valid concern, but there is a very clear rebuttal to the point. We must consider what America is fighting for. Unlike other groups or nations who fight for a person, America fights for an idea. This is where we draw our strength from. We fight for the ideals of freedom, justice, and righteousness. We stand for a world where people can live in happiness and prosperity; a world where you can walk out the door without living in fear of being shot. In America, anybody has a chance. In short, we stand for justice and fairness. Cheating in international affairs is, of course, exactly the opposite of all these claims. Repudiation of our system and endorsement of cheating is repudiating all of what America has stood for. We fight because we believe that we are the best: that our system is the fairest. By adopting the dishonest system, we lose any claim we have that ultimate victory should be ours. We become one of our enemies: a nameless, faceless shadow.

Of what bearing does a discourse on international affairs have on the rest of the article? Surprisingly, the two are related. Children are repudiating America’s meaning and message. People forget that someday these children will be the main part of society, and perhaps leaders in the world. It’s likely that many of the children will still cheat then.

Many kids think that cheating is easy to stop. They may plan to abandon cheating as soon as they leave high school, or graduate from college. However, this may not happen and they may continue. Resumé fraud is increasingly a problem for firms recruiting college graduates. There is a simple explanation for this failure to stop cheating. Cheating is also an addiction, like alcohol and drugs. If a student has been weaned for their whole academic life on cheating, it will be very hard for that student to stop.

Consider the impact a generation of cheaters would have on our society. The world has always had some cheaters. When a published work in the field of science, for example, is found to have been plagiarized, that person is largely shunned by the scientific community. Imagine a world in the future in which most scientists and indeed most citizens are cheaters, in which cheating has become the way of life. It would be a disaster. It would be a catastrophe to have a leadership that cheats, one that we could not trust to the hilt.

We are experiencing problems because of issues like this: consider the Bernie Madoff scandal. There are still honest people in the world who were there to call Madoff’s bluff, but what if the country ran out of these people? It would be cataclysmic. Through dishonest investments and other tricky market positions, our economy has severely declined. We have honest people working to restore the system, who are partially succeeding in stemming the loss. Without these people, there could be another Great Depression, or even worse. If America’s ideals of integrity meant nothing, there would be civil strife and worse — the whole country might well collapse.

Another argument, perhaps the most convincing, is the moral consequences of a lifestyle of cheating. It is important to consider whether something is “right” or “wrong” regardless of the specifics. Cheating draws a clear X on wrong for a multitude of reasons. It would be a repudiation of Western democracy, which our ancestors built on honor and trust. A society where people use “shady” techniques to present other people’s work as their own sounds like it would come from totalitarian Nazi Germany or communist Soviet Russia, not from our Western democracies. In the race to get ahead, we are in fact falling behind the ideals that we have cherished so dearly and paid for so highly for thousands of years, and accepting the dishonesty that our forefathers died to defeat.

This article was written anonymously by “A very concerned non-compliant.”