Opinion
Assessment Commentary

‘Our Sacred Honor’

By Peter Berger — October 29, 2007 5 min read

Every September, I tell my students the rules, everything from how to behave on the bus to don’t write in lime ink so I can read what you’ve written with my middle-aged eyes. It helps them know what to expect from me, and what I expect from them. I try to keep my explanations light, but my tone changes when I talk about cheating. I explain that cheating means giving me someone else’s work as your own. In my experience as a teacher, it usually involves copying another student’s homework. Other times, it consists of report plagiarizing, wandering eyes, or whispering answers across the aisle. In the extreme, it can sink to computer hacking and stealing exams.

There’s always a grade of zero for both receivers and willing providers of answers. Sometimes the consequences include detentions and notes to parents. In my undergraduate days, cheating brought expulsion. In my middle school classroom, though, the penalties themselves aren’t the worst cost. The loss of trust between us is.

I want my classroom to be a place where we work hard but enjoy ourselves as much as that hard work allows. Humor and flexibility contribute to that productive, positive atmosphere, but neither can exist without trust. The less I can trust my students, the more I have to behave like a warden. Cheating ravages that essential trust.

I know a lot of teachers who post the same rules, and I’ve known a lot of parents who endorse them, even when it’s their children who cheat and get caught in their own lies.

Sadly, other teachers and parents hold strange and contrary views. I took an education course once where the instructor was slamming what he regarded as old-fashioned, 20th-century education notions. To illustrate just how backward and repressive some teachers are, he told a story about a student who’d leaned across the aisle during a test to ask a classmate for an answer. “And can you believe what his teacher said?” my professor complained. “She accused him of cheating.”

I volunteered that I could readily believe it, because that’s exactly what I would call it.

The less I can trust my students, the more I have to behave like a warden. Cheating ravages that essential trust.

Surveys and studies warn that cheating is on the rise. Some blame technology, from text messaging to answer-primed iPods and invisible earphones. We’ve also got Web sites that sell term papers to students, and other sites that help schools trace such papers and catch the students who buy them. One term-paper mill decorates its Web site with portraits of Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Mark Twain, in the apparent hope that we’ll assume these luminaries endorsed plagiarism. There’s also a quote ascribed to Albert Einstein, presumably to convince us that the good professor secretly wished his students at Princeton would hand in other people’s research.

Yes, technology has complicated matters, but the problem itself isn’t technological. The problem is human.

The fundamental issue isn’t the kinds of tests we give, or whether the federal No Child Left Behind law has American students coloring in too many circles, or if we’re teaching kids what they need to know for the 21st century.

Stress isn’t the issue either. Some experts claim that today’s kids are under exceptional psychological pressure because they live in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Excuse me, but I’m part of the generation that practiced diving under desks when the siren sounded. Don’t talk to me about mushroom clouds. And don’t talk to me about Sept. 11 and the terrorist menace. My Khrushchev-era neighbors spent their weekends digging fallout shelters.

Other experts focus on what they view as the unparalleled academic pressure burdening 21st-century students. According to one “visionary” professor, teachers like me are responsible for students’ dishonesty. He reasons that because I refuse to accept work that a student has plagiarized, I’m to blame when the student “feels compelled to lie” to me about it. This advocate touts what he bills as “honest copying.” As long as the student informs me where he copied his report, I’m supposed to “reward” him and give him credit.

This expert says we need to diagnose why students cheat. Here’s a fellow who’s taught at several major universities and he somehow hasn’t figured out that it’s easier to retype someone else’s term paper than it is to write one yourself.

He isn’t alone. Boosters of cooperative learning echo his sentiments. They liken “collaborating” on tests to the “real world,” where people work together in teams all the time. Except school isn’t the real world. If it were, we’d be firing all the students who don’t have more to offer the team than putting their names on someone else’s work.

Of course, maybe I’m out of touch. Maybe it makes sense to let me use someone else’s answers so that you can figure out how much I know. Maybe this theory will catch on in the field of medicine. That way, cardiac surgeons won’t really have to know how to do bypass surgery. They’ll just need to stand next to somebody who does when they’re in medical school.

Understanding algebra isn’t the same as sitting across the aisle from someone who does. The purpose of a test isn’t to find out how well you can collaborate. The purpose is to find out how much you’ll have to offer later on, when someone needs to collaborate with you.

As for today’s allegedly unprecedented “high-pressure academic culture” and competition for admission to prestige universities, I grew up in 1960s suburban New Jersey. Our mothers knitted baby booties in Ivy League colors, and from the morning we hit kindergarten we lived and died by our permanent records. There’s nothing new about competition and scholastic pressure.

Adults do no one a kindness when they justify deceit. Students need and deserve an unambiguous ethical standard.

There’s also nothing new about honor.

That’s not to say that I’ve always acted honorably. To my shame, I haven’t. But when I haven’t, it’s been my fault. Some now contend that when students cheat, we all need to accept some of the blame. They argue that we all contribute to the problem by applying too much pressure on kids to succeed.

There are at least two flaws in this argument. First of all, in much of the world the pressure on 18-year-olds to succeed involves far weightier issues than where they’re going to college, like whether they’re going to starve or be killed in their sleep. Second, the essence of honor is not that you do what’s right only when it doesn’t cost you anything. You do what’s right even though it does.

Sympathy for children is an understandable response, sometimes even when they’re in the wrong. But adults do no one a kindness when they justify deceit. Students need and deserve an unambiguous ethical standard.

In history class, we read through the Declaration of Independence. When we get to the end, I recite the part where the Founders pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their “sacred honor.” I ask my students if they can explain what honor means.

Sadly, although they’re mostly good kids, few are familiar with the word. If we have a collective, societal fault, that perilous ignorance is it.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Our Sacred Honor’

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