Calling It What It Is
"I guess that makes you a liar."
The 8th grade student sitting across from me looked as though I had slapped him. His face darkened. He had been caught copying someone else's homework. Up to this point, he had reacted with a kind of "so what?" attitude. Previous lectures had fallen on deaf ears. "It's no big deal--everybody does it."
The "it" he referred to is cheating. In an era when cheating on one's income taxes, one's billable hours, or even one's spouse is accepted as a norm in our culture, it has become increasingly difficult to address this issue effectively with students. Studies tell us that cheating in school has moved from being commonplace, to being epidemic, to being nearly universal. Almost every student admits to cheating at one time or another.
The age in which we live adds to the incidence of cheating. The advent of the Internet has intensified this issue as it has become easier to find term papers and essays on nearly any topic with a few clicks of a mouse. Easy access and simplified technology make "browser cheating" rampant. Students can disguise plagiarized work with a new font in a matter of seconds. The increased pressure for good grades and acceptance into prestigious colleges exacerbates the urge to cheat.
Teachers have discovered that there is almost no stigma attached to being found out as a cheater. Students shrug off the guilt of cheating as easily as they might brush dandruff from their Gap-clothed shoulders. In their peer group, students have come to consider cheating as being as routine as, say, gum-chewing.
The nation affirmed this attitude last year as polls showed the public relatively unconcerned about President Clinton's admission that he had cheated on his wife. Certainly, there were legal reasons why he did not want to admit to lying, but there were subtle social reasons as well. Our culture retains a strong sense of condemnation for liars. To confess that he had cheated was human; to admit to lying was to accept the judgment that he was badly flawed.
The moral stand against cheating seems grounded in quicksand as people increasingly accept it as "the way things are." Not so for lying. There is still plenty of sting in being called a liar. Students who shrug when accused of cheating get positively outraged at being accused of lying. "I am not a liar!" the 8th grade offender protested angrily.
"When you handed in this homework to your teacher as if you had done the work yourself, wasn't that a lie? Didn't you misrepresent this as being your own work? Cheating is lying." By calling it what it is, teachers can begin to make a dent in the widespread acceptance of cheating. Focusing on the dishonesty of cheating places a speed bump on the highway of acceptable student behavior.
Connecting cheating with lying unmasks the "sleight of mind" that allows students to think of cheating as a justifiable way to act. While not a perfect solution, the notion of "cheating as lying" helps cast the moral argument more clearly. Students get it. Calling someone a liar may seem harsh, but that's precisely the point. For students to acknowledge that cheating is a problem, they must feel it as something which is truly wrong.
David Summergrad is a teacher at Wayland Middle School in Wayland, Mass.
Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 46Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Calling It What It Is