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Student Well-Being

Is the Culture of Achievement Impairing Students’ Moral Sense?

By Anthony Rebora — September 07, 2012 1 min read

Responding to a cheating scandal at Harvard, renowned developmental psychologist Howard Gardner worries that elite students’ relentless drive for success, fueled by what he refers to as “market ways of thinking,” has crippled their moral sense. He reports on a study on career ambitions he and colleagues conducted through interviews with top students:

Over and over again, students told us that they admired good work and wanted to be good workers. But they also told us they wanted—ardently—to be successful. They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested. And so, they told us in effect, "Let us cut corners now and one day, when we have achieved fame and fortune, we'll be good workers and set a good example." A classic case of the ends justify the means.

Relatedly, in a back-to-school article on the Time website, journalist Paul Tough says that parents’ all-consuming focus on their children’s grades and test scores has left little room for kids to develop character traits like “perseverance, grit, optimism, conscientiousness, and self-control ... .” He writes:

In fact, there's growing evidence that our anxiety about our children's school performance may actually be holding them back from learning some of these valuable skills. If you're concerned solely with a child's G.P.A., then you will likely choose to minimize the challenges that child faces in school. With real challenge comes the risk of real failure. And in an ultra-competitive academic environment, the idea of failure—even a small, temporary failure—can be very scary, to students and parents alike.

Scary enough, perhaps, to lead to cheating? It’s hard not to see Gardner’s and Tough’s apprehensions converging, in any case.

Tough, incidentally, is the author of the just-published How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. He recently elaborated on his ideas, if you’re interested, in an interview with Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.