How Bad Is Cheating?

Taking Dishonesty in the Classroom As Seriously as We Should

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It is not impossible to imagine that some years hence we will think of academic cheating as we think of alcohol consumption: not problematic in moderation.

While moral education programs tend to emphasize right living, discipline—its darker underbelly—stresses wrongdoing. By looking at discipline policies, one therefore gets some understanding of the norms that matter to schools and the coherence of their moral messages. To that end, I have been reading codes of conduct from random high schools in Pennsylvania. What I have found is that codes generally classify wrongs by place of occurrence (in class, out of class), by degree of disturbance, sometimes alphabetically, and, most often, by frequency. They rarely, however, distinguish moral from nonmoral infractions, as the following example illustrates.

Susie and Sarah, two high school students, are both disciplinary problems. Susie, preoccupied with her friendships and indifferent to her studies, is chronically late for school and often for class, wears skirts that sometimes fall short of the allowable dress-code limits, and snacks outside the cafeteria. Otherwise, she is well liked, cooperative, and always the first to volunteer for chores or new initiatives. Sarah, academically ambitious but not conscientious, plagiarizes papers from the Internet, and is not above forging an excuse note when she is unprepared for a test. She is cynical about school, seeing it as a way station to college, where her attention is directed.

According to School A’s disciplinary code, the fourth time Susie is late to class she will receive a detention. Should she have an unexcused absence, she will receive a one-day internal suspension. The second time she eats outside the cafeteria she will be given a one-day internal suspension, and a two-day suspension after the third episode. Sarah, for forgery, will receive the same sanctions: one day of internal suspension on the second occasion, two days on the third. For cheating, her first offense will result in a zero on the assignment, the second in a one-day internal suspension. For plagiarism, Sarah will receive a two-day internal suspension on the second offense.

Were Susie to attend School B, she would receive a Saturday in-school suspension for her third violation of the dress code. Sarah would have the same sanction for her second forgery offense, but for dishonesty in her work she simply would get no credit—and that not until her third violation.

What I find problematic in this illustration is bunching dishonesty with more minor violations and treating similarly children who, from a moral perspective, are so different. The response to cheating is particularly noteworthy. Often omitted from the codes altogether, when flagged it is generally categorized at a low level, along with dress-code violations, tardiness, inappropriate language, failure to do assignments, and failure to follow directions.

Vandalism, by contrast, is taken much more seriously. In School A, the child receives an internal suspension of three days for the first act of vandalism, must make compensation for damages, and, failing to do so in 30 days, is subjected to a court complaint. In School B, the child is held financially responsible for the first offense and the school may file charges with the police.

These responses (and those for forgery and plagiarism are similar) suggest that dishonesty may not be taken as seriously by schools as it is by the public. The press frequently reminds us of rampant and escalating cheating in educational institutions, as elsewhere in society. In 2002, the Josephson Institute of Ethics reported that 74 percent of high school students admitted to having cheated in the past year. Rutgers University’s Donald McCabe, the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, at Duke University, cites similar numbers from his surveys (2000 and 2001). Given these conditions, it is worth considering whether schools are adequately engaged with the problem and, if not, how they might address academic dishonesty. But first, is cheating a grave dereliction compared, say, to dress-code violations?

As with other ethical values, once norm violations become both visible and frequent, their moral sting dissipates. (Consider prohibitions against premarital sex and divorce, for example.) To cheat or not becomes merely a matter of taste, rather than obligation, for how can it be seriously wrong when everyone does it? Bit by bit, as the norm fades, so do the consequences. Once greeted with a severe reaction, the violation is now met with little more than an administrative shrug. Teachers too become more casual; they report that getting involved (arguing with dismissive parents, proving the infraction) is not worth the trouble. Given these conditions—crowd protection and no substantial repercussions—the problem, if indeed one sees it as a problem, seems intractable. Will cheating, then, go the way of prohibition and virginity?

It is not impossible to imagine that some years hence we will think of academic cheating as we think of alcohol consumption: not problematic in moderation. Already, polls suggest that students do not see it as reprehensible. In the Josephson Institute report, for example, despite the high level of self-confessed cheating, students believe in their personal righteousness and even their trustworthiness. Fifty percent of Don McCabe’s respondents don’t see copying answers from a test as cheating. Apparently, that you cheat does not necessarily make you a cheater. This view is consistent with the famous findings of Hugh Hartshorne and Mark H. May from the 1930s that cheating is not a trait belonging to a person, but rather a behavior that pops up under certain conditions.

There are several arguments to support the schools’ moderate view toward cheating: First, as cheating becomes commonplace, the general expectation of honesty declines; no one is duped and so no trust is broken. Second, school cheating is not really cheating; it is simply a rational response to the competitive duress students are under and to the tremendous rewards, along with limited opportunities, that attend success.

Third, cheating is the natural response to student disengagement from, and sometimes resentment of, the academic enterprise. The student who cheats on a test or plagiarizes a paper is not a bad kid; she would not, for instance, cheat on her boyfriend or her parents, where a valued relationship is put at risk. It is more like getting even, justified by unreasonable meaningless demands, much as the worker, refused a raise, feels justified in stealing what is “rightfully” his. Fourth, when everyone does it you have to be a moral saint not to follow suit. And finally, it is impossible to stop.

These contextual arguments suggest that if one is really upset by cheating, look to the conditions in society and schools that propel it; don’t focus on the moral turpitude of the child. Engage children more in their schools with livelier curricula; encourage a more cooperative, less competitive atmosphere; change the focus from achievement to fulfillment, and cheating will plunge.

School cheating is not a victimless crime. It hurts those who refrain, however few they may be, and it deceives the teacher, turning her into a vigilante.

There is merit to these points, yet intuitively they strike me as not fully adequate. Though cheating pressures are all but overwhelming, it is still dishonorable, causing injury to oneself and others. School cheating is not a victimless crime. It hurts those who refrain, however few they may be, and it deceives the teacher, turning her into a vigilante. An atmosphere of suspicion replaces one of trust. The student becomes an object over whom the teacher presides, rather than an autonomous person worthy of her respect.

Whether the student realizes it or not, there is a corruption of the relationship and a diminishment of his personhood. To say it’s not really cheating creates a schism between who one is and what one does; the fraudulent representation chips away at the integrity of the self.

If cheating becomes normalized in schools, virtues of honesty and trustworthiness will be imperiled. Yet, given the compelling forces that make it so tempting to cheat, we cannot just exhort children to refrain and punish them when they succumb. If we are to counter current trends, it seems obvious that they must be addressed at both the individual and collective levels. That is, school policy must avoid putting all the blame on the student or all the blame on circumstances.

The competitive duress caused by high-stakes, winner-takes-all testing must be modified, the academic disengagement reversed. On the other hand, students should not be relieved of all personal responsibility, with cheating reduced to an immaterial offense occasioned by contextual pressures.

Revamping discipline codes would be one step toward changing the atmospherics and holding children responsible. Were schools to disembed cheating, and other deceptive practices, from general rule-breaking, it would announce to students and parents that cheating is an affront to the mission of the academic enterprise and to the moral health of the student. This would follow the precedent of higher education institutions, where “explanations” for cheating (competition, disengagement) are not exculpating. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, the Code of Academic Integrity is separated from the Code of Student Conduct. While infractions of the conduct code usually result in mediation, violations of academic integrity usually result in suspension (the minimum sanction).

Of course, merely separating violations and ratcheting up sanctions for dishonesty will be ineffective without a broader moral education effort. Schools need to earnestly and continuously breed a culture in which honor is valued by all the community, where it is seen not as a harsh imposition but as a desired good—up there with grades, sports, popularity, and other accomplishments.

That’s an enormous undertaking. Yet, unless we try, I fear that contemporary forces will turn honesty into one of those antiquated traditions much like, as I write, the ban on cellphones.

Vol. 24, Issue 16, Pages 32, 35

Published in Print: January 5, 2005, as How Bad Is Cheating?
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