Each semester, I give my speech about cheating. “There is nothing I hate more than cheating, lying, and stealing,” I tell my students. They affectionately call me the “Cheat Nazi,” although I am sure they mean the new connotation of the word Nazi, meaning fanatic, and not a genocidal maniac. “I would rather be smacked in the face than to catch you cheating in my room,” I tell them. Yet I find an increasing number of students don’t see anything wrong with cheating at some level.
Students don’t consider copying homework to be cheating, I’ve discovered, because they “... were just borrowing the homework.” I have also found that the average cheater is not the student who sits quietly in the back of the room, makes F’s on report cards, and has parents who could care less. The average cheater is not the student who is constantly in the principal’s office. No, the average cheater is the average student.
Statistics show that about 86 percent of all high school students admit to having cheated at least once.
The other day, I caught a boy copying another student’s U.S. history essay. The two students were visibly distraught, mortified—not because I had caught them in some immoral act, but because the boy copying would not have time to finish before his history class. Though I teach English, being the anti-cheating fanatic I am, I took up the copied material to deliver it to the history teacher. As I marched, half goose-stepping, down the hallway, I felt a sense of pride. Like a soldier with a confirmed enemy kill. I zeroed in on the other teacher and gallantly approached with the quarry in hand. Her response was, “I guess they’ll just have to do it over in class.”
The horror. The dismay. How could she allow these despicable liars to get another chance? Didn’t she care? Wasn’t she as ashamed of them as I was? Apparently not. A “do-over.” They should certainly have received zeros and a call home, if not a referral to the grade-level principal.
After reflecting for a few days, I decided that the students involved in this incident were not horrible societal misfits who deserved to be drawn and quartered and placed on public display. Perhaps my stance on cheating is a little rigid, I thought, and “do-overs” should be allowed. Maybe they do deserve a second chance. No, they were not criminals. They were Mr. and Ms. Average Student. And they truly believed that what they were doing was OK.
In a court of law, in order for a crime to have taken place, mens rea, the mental intention to do wrong, must exist. (I learned that from “Legally Blonde” and not Yale Law, just in case you thought I was a genius.) Cheating being equivalent to theft in my mind, I decided to look up the mens rea for theft. For this crime to have occurred, one student must have intended to permanently deprive the other student of property. Surely Joe Student did not intend to permanently deprive the other student of her knowledge. He just wanted to borrow it.
For about a week, the ideas of borrowing and cheating have been bouncing around my head like an old game of Pong. Back and forth they go, with no real solution, and no end in sight. I keep settling on the term “borrow.” When do I borrow something and why? I usually borrow something when I have no permanent need for that item. Like a paint sprayer or a flatbed truck, or the giant tent for my circus of a wedding. Sure, I may need them once in my life, but I don’t buy them because I’ll never use them again.
I’ve read the research and I know what the experts say. Students cheat for the following reasons: pressure to get into top colleges; because other students are cheating and getting 100s, when they’re only getting 90s; the fact that nothing happens when they get caught; in response to a workload that is overwhelming; because we place too much emphasis on grades. This list goes on.
Perhaps our curriculum has become so irrelevant to real life that most students would rather borrow the knowledge than commit to purchase it for themselves.
Statistics show that about 86 percent of all high school students admit to having cheated at least once. But what if students cheat, or borrow, for the same reason I borrow? What if they see the knowledge we give them as really useless, something they’ll never need again, and that is the underlying reason for the rampant cheating? Perhaps our curriculum has become so irrelevant to real life that most students, 86 percent in fact, would rather borrow the knowledge than commit to purchase it—learn it—for themselves.
There is something inherent in my moral fiber that won’t allow me to loosen my policy on cheating. I have thought about it a lot, and although I am ashamed to admit it, I may find myself goose-stepping down the hallway again in the future. But maybe I’ll think more about it and remember the problem when I plan my lessons. Maybe I can become a better salesman of my own material, and maybe I can energize and update my teaching methods.
Or maybe all of us, as educators, can take a long, hard look at the relevance of our curriculum and finally change it for the better. Then maybe more of our students will want to buy the knowledge that it represents for themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Thoughts on Cheating