Why do students cheat?


The startling news from Cambridge: 10 percent of incoming Harvard freshmen cheated on exams while in high school. That factoid, taken from a survey conducted by the student-run Harvard Crimson, shook up the chatterati, prompting much handwringing about the crumbling morals of today’s youth and the impending fall of civilization. Roman Empire, here we come! In truth, what the survey should have prompted was skepticism.

According to a 2012 national study by the Josephson Institute’s Center for Youth Ethics, 51 percent of high schoolers admit to having cheated on an exam. The Institute’s analysis, conducted every other year, has consistently found a majority of students to be cheaters. So if the Crimson’s numbers are right, then far from being ethically challenged, Harvard freshmen are saints. And since Harvard students aren’t saints (they only play them in those fantasy-drenched essays they write to try to gain admission), something’s wrong. An obvious conclusion: Harvard students actually cheated on a survey about cheating.

Kids aren’t the only ones with ethical issues. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 40 percent of résumés contain lies, while a staggering 78 percent of them are misleading. In making the transition from real life to resume, suddenly each position you’ve held is vital, you were the leader on every task, and everything you did met with acclaim.

Cheating is hardly a new phenomenon. The Josephson Institute’s data go back to 1992, and it was bemoaning the lack of students’ principles even then. But there is some belief that while cheating may be age-old, of late it’s become more widespread and sophisticated, with smartphones instead of scribbled hints on one’s palm and downloaded papers replacing CliffsNotes. And I suspect resume padding is a long-time practice as well. The main difference between then and now is that today it is far easier to find out the truth. A padded resume posted on LinkedIn becomes available for all to see, including those co-workers who have no recollection of your singlehanded success at turning around that lagging division.

But for all of this cheating, civilization hasn’t crumbled. The reason, contrary to the worries of those anguished by its prevalence, is that, while cheating is bad, it’s not terribly bad. For many, it’s seen as something akin to speeding. Against the rules, to be sure, but oftentimes rationalized in the same way that we rationalize many transgressions: Everyone else is doing it, I’ll never get caught, the rules themselves don’t make sense (30 miles per hour on this road?), or something else (such as an important meeting) matters more.

Why do high schoolers cheat on tests? They cheat because sometimes the penalties of not doing so appear far worse than the cheating itself. Few kids come home from school to hear their parents asking,“What did you learn today?” Rather, the question is,“How’d you do on your exam?” From freshman year on, the constant drumbeat is about GPA and college admissions. Do badly on one test and your GPA suffers. A lower GPA and you don’t get into the right college. Don’t get into that college and your life is in tatters, dooming you to die early, broke, and alone.

Faced with those consequences, the moral costs of cheating must look small indeed.

The same kind of thinking applies to resumes, which at best are imperfect markers as to how good an employee you might be. Every entry-level job seems to require prior experience, a Catch-22 whose only escape, finally, is to invent a prior experience. Or consider the case of Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, who was forced to resign in disgrace from her job as head of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She had falsely claimed to have a doctorate from New York University; she probably wouldn’t have been hired unless she had one. Still, after 17 years on the job, one would think work performance, not some long-ago distortion, would matter more. Apparently not.

In an ideal world, we’d care more about how much our children know than how they test. And employers would judge staff by the quality of their work rather than the length of their CV. Until then, though, cheating will persist – not just by a few, but a lot.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Boston Globe. His was a Boston city councilor from 1994 to 1999.

© 2013 The New York Times

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