Cheating is the New Normal

A well-publicized cheating scandal at Great Neck High School featured a criminal entrepreneur taking SAT tests for college-bound high school students. My colleagues in the Academy tell me cheating is endemic with papers written by “service” organizations and plagiarism a national contagion. Teachers are routinely engaged in “scrubbing” various tests in an effort to increase the ratio of passing grades. The Atlanta school system was recently indicted for changing, student grades in an effort to improve the schools’ performance profile.

These stories invite the obvious question: Are conditions worse now than earlier?

Clearly, it’s impossible to compare what is happening now with some abstract standard in the past. But from anecdotal evidence, I suspect cheating is more prevalent than ever. There are several reasons that account for it.

One, it is easy. You can sit at your computer or cell phone and recover articles across the globe. The Internet is a window on the world. Moreover, copyright and property rights are routinely violated by a digital system that doesn’t honor the ownership of ideas.

Two, there has been a breakdown in academic requirements. In fact, cheating is so ubiquitous on campus, that professors often accept it or just avert their gaze. Many students do not associate cheating with moral turpitude. As one college student noted, “what happens in college is unrelated to what occurs in ‘real’ energy.”

Three, many students rationalize cheating as another form of learning. As one student indicated, “I was helping someone or I was taking advantage of technological opportunities.” These rationalizers have convinced themselves that cheating isn’t wrong.

Fourth, most students have reached the conclusion that what is really important is “getting ahead.” “The better grades, the better graduate school,” is a refrain. “If you can cut corners, you’re going to save time and energy.”

Fifth, despite the rationalizations, most students will admit cheating is wrong. However, they will note that many people in prominent positions cheat: Presidents Nixon and Clinton are invariably cited in student surveys. Athletes taking steroids is another commonly mentioned condition. If these people do it, it cannot be a big deal.

In the 2002 Josephson Institute of Ethics survey 74 percent of students admitted to cheating on an exam. As I see it, students in effect are saying, cheating is wrong and society is justified in condemning it, but special circumstances make it okay for me to ignore the rules. In most instances, students appeal to a “higher” narcissistic standard in making moral judgments. These students haven’t abandoned the notion of integrity, they simply believe that circumstances often dictate bending the rules.

Does this explanation suggest relativism is now the prevailing moral compass for youthful Americans?  It’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion.

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