The Cheating Kind

Last week, the New York Times reported on the culture of cheating at Stuyvesant High School. 71 students were caught sharing answers on an exam and, in what many readers found surprising, revealed to Vivian Lee why it was acceptable. Lee explained:

“By the time they graduate, many have internalized a moral and academic math: Copying homework is fine, but cheating on a test is less so; cheating to get by in a required class is more acceptable than cheating on an Advanced Placement exam; anything less than a grade of 85 is “failing”

The expectations for achievement, especially getting accepted into a top-notch university, have led students, their parents, and the teachers to accept cheating as a logical–and even acceptable–means to an end. Stuyvesant is certainly not alone. Widespread cheating–excused by the pressures of achievement and  rationalized as necessary to reaching goals–occurs in colleges as much as high school. This utilitarian approach to cheating has caused Claire Potter, at Tenured Radical, to call out not only teachers but also “privileged students who blame everyone but themselves.” While this phenomenon causes many instructors to critique the barrage of standardized testing, Potter asks:

“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.”

Like Tenured Radical, I have little empathy for students who blame their cheating on stress. At the same time, I think the prevalence of cheating places a responsibility on the instructor to explain to students the fallacies in their cheating moral calculus. As Stanley Fish asserted a couple years ago: Plagiarism is a learned sin. While students may see immediate results in cheating (despite our best efforts to catch them, some students will cheat their way to an A), we need to help them see the consequences beyond our courses. If we are not talking about how our classes matter after the final exam (or challenging them to recognize it themselves), why should they think beyond getting above that “failing” 85 on the next assignment? In spite of what students have been trained to think, the grade is not the most important part of the course. After all, the more you know, the more you know.

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