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The Conservative Curmudgeon
September 25, 2012

What Does an Epidemic of Cheating Tell Us about American Society?
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — American education is in the grip of an epidemic of cheating on the part of students and, sad to say, teachers as well.

In August, some 125 students at Harvard University were being investigated for cheating on a final examination. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted a study of 100 of Harvard’s “best and brightest” students nearly 20 years ago. “The results of that study,” he writes, “surprised us. Over and over again, students told us 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 end justifies the means.”

During the past six years, Gardner and colleagues have conducted reflection sessions at elite colleges. They found “hollowness at the core.” In one case of a dean who was fired because she lied about her academic qualifications, the most common student response was, “Everyone lies on their resume.” In a discussion of the movie, Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room, students were asked what they thought of company traders who manipulated the price of energy. Not one student condemned the traders.

The example set by professors, Gardner argues, is not good: “... all too often they see their professors cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research. Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others' work-- there are frequently no clear punishments....”

In surveys of high school students, the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that about three-fifths admit to having cheated in the previous year. Institute president Michael Josephson states, “Few schools place any meaningful emphasis on integrity, academic or otherwise, and colleges are even more indifferent than high schools.”

Some teachers have actually encouraged students to cheat, and some have cheated themselves when reporting test scores. In July 2011, a cheating scandal erupted in school systems in and around Atlanta. Georgia state investigators found a pattern of “organized and systemic misconduct” dating back over 10 years. The principals of half of the system’s schools and over 178 teachers aided and abetted students who were cheating on their tests. Top administrators ignored news reports of this cheating. A New York Times story described “a culture of fear and intimidation that prevented many teachers from speaking out.”

This was not an isolated incident. In a feature on school testing, CBS News reported: “New York education officials found 21 proven cases of teacher cheating. Teachers have read off the answers during a test, sent students back to correct wrong answers, photocopied secure tests for use in class, inflated scores, and peeked at questions and then drilled those topics in class before the test.”

William Damon, professor of education at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, notes, “It is practically impossible to find a school that treats academic integrity as a moral issue by employing revealed incidents of cheating to communicate to its student body values such as honesty, respect for rules, and trust.... I have noticed a palpable lack of interest among teachers and staff in discussing the moral significance of cheating with students. The problem here is the low priority of honesty in our agenda for schooling specifically and child-rearing in general.”

In the past, Professor Damon points out, “... there was not much hesitancy in our society about using a moral language to teach children essential virtues such as honesty. For us today, it can be a culture shock to leaf through old editions of the McGuffey Readers, used in most American schools until the mid-20th century, to see how readily educators once dispensed unambiguous moral lessons to students.... As the Founders of our Republic warned, the failure to cultivate virtue in citizens can be a lethal threat to any democracy.... Honesty is no longer a priority in many of the settings where young people are educated. The future of every society depends upon the character development of its young. It is in the early years of life… when basic virtues that shape character are acquired.... Honesty is a prime example of a virtue that becomes habitual over the years if practiced consistently -- and the same can be said about dishonesty.”

The cheating scandals among students and teachers are simply the tip of the iceberg of our society’s retreat from honesty — and honor. Ethical lapses on the part of Wall Street, Congress, and other sectors of society seem to be growing. Each time a political leader speaks, the fact-checkers fill columns reporting about the mis-statements. Didn’t anyone think that if we stopped teaching morals and ethics — and the difference between right and wrong — society would lose its moral compass? It appears no one did.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2012 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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