Having got that previous post of life-threaten(ed) melodrama out of my system, it’s now time to confront the epidemic of cheating in schools.

Cheating, 2008
I left out an important detail when I told the story of my impossible first semester at dental school. It goes like this: shortly after receiving the news on the 12th of November, 2008 that I was mere points from failing two critical classes, I was in the library cramming for a histology quiz on which I could not afford to lose any points. A classmate of mine approached me.

“I’ve got the answers to the quiz, you know. They’re the same every year.”
“They are?”
“They are. I’ve got them right here. Would you like them?”

My classmate and I both knew the class was a farce, that 90% of the lecturers were spectacularly uninterested in educating us. We both knew the class was just the first of many hoops through which we were required to jump, for no real educational benefit. My classmate hedged their hours of studying with a sure thing: having the answers in hand. I couldn’t do it.

“No thanks.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I can’t accept those.”

At this point, I knew two things:

  1. Dental students cheat, just like everyone else.
  2. I apparently lack self-preservation instincts, instead preferring to count on my morality to keep me warm should I fail out.

Cheating, 2010
Recently, Kottke brought the cheating topic back to the forefront of my mind. He posted a fascinating excerpt of a lecture from a University of Central Florida course director. In it, the professor describes his disbelief that one third of his 600 student class cheated on their October 2010 midterm:

To say I’m disappointed is beyond comprehension. Physically ill, absolutely disgusted, completely disillusioned, trying to figure out what the last 20 years were for. For those of you out there who acted ethically and acted honorably, and did it right, you have my undying gratitude and my utmost respect. For those of you who took the shortcut, don’t call me. Don’t ask me to do anything for you. Ever. Again.

It Get Worse
Modern cheating goes far beyond publisher’s test banks and crib sheets; the internet has extended the previous local connections between friends to a diverse network of full-time, well-paid paper ghostwriters. In a tremendously depressing article in The Chronicle Review called The Shadow Scholar, one of these paper generators describes writing for student customers:

Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I’ve worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

In the midst of this great recession, business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company’s staff of roughly 50 writers is not large enough to satisfy the demands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.

People with money have always been able to buy their way through university. Now, when laziness and purchasing power combine, a façade of intellectual honesty can be maintained—the shadow writer doesn’t know their cheater’s identity—so the student isn’t singled out as a lazy cheater, even amongst their peers. Cheating is truly difficult to detect when one’s peers can’t even sniff it out.

When people try to understand the cheating problem and they are able to get past the incredible deceit students are willing to accept in exchange for good grades, criticism inevitably falls on “The System”. “This academic system is broken…”, they declare, “…a system that allows cheaters to succeed is not testing students correctly.”

This may be true. But, it jumps over the question of the individual to the question of their environment. Shouldn’t we first understand why students choose to cheat, and then try to fit these students into an academic setting?

After talking about the recent stampedes in Cambodia, Mykala and I came to rather general theory: when external pressures are sufficient, rational humans are quickly reduced to animals functioning entirely on instinct.

I believe this phenomenon explains some of cheating. Students are in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and their only way to repay is to get their degree and job. The specter of extreme financial pressure looms above the heads of these stressed out students. Losing their scruples, they claw and bite their way through a class using any means available. Cheating saved them from consequences, so they don’t see a problem.

What if debt doesn’t bother students? What if they’re rich? Perhaps they lack intellectual curiosity. A few comments from a discussion of “The Shadow Scholar” article:

There are some people who, irrespective of the work they put in, who will never be able to learn some things. I used to think that people were just lazy, but then I realized that many things are beyond most people. Don’t believe for a second that one day, everyone will be smart, uber-rational and we’ll all live in some Randian, Galt-led utopia.
Deep, critical thinking is not possible for most people. Through no fault of their own, they simply lack the mental hardware. I recognize that this view is very un-PC, but if mind is a function of matter as I believe, some people, regardless of what they do, will never be able to reason at a high level.

Uh oh. Now we’re in some truly dangerous depths. Sure, an inability to think would help explain cheating. But, if we believe some brains are physically inferior to others, the ideal of meritocracy is just the beginning of the collateral damage. Stratifying people and their brains by functional ability threatens to form the foundation of a rigid caste system. Suddenly, we’re at Gattaca’s doorstep.

Two possibilities explain a lack of intellectual curiosity: “I do not want to” and “I can’t”. Unfortunately, the outcome in both situations looks the same: the person is not curious. A more concrete example: am I unable to run an ultra-marathon because I lack “the hardware” or because I do not WANT to? How can we tell the difference?

I’m willing, however, to discontinue the debate about the processing power of different minds in favor of something else entirely more fascinating. What if there is social pressure to avoid intellectual curiosity? What faster way to ruin a good football conversation than subjecting folks around the water cooler with a dissertation about sports head injuries? Indeed, oz’s comment about people’s aptitude for thought sparked a reply addressing these social pressures:

I’ve known people who [are] capable of thinking deeply, but will do so only when cornered, and will resent whatever put them into that position. It’s not that they can’t; it’s that they have learned that there are social consequences when they do. They take away from the mindless fun of whatever group of people they are with when they start thinking about it.

Student’s social circles reward cheating:

  1. The cheater has more time to socialize since they needn’t study.
  2. The cheater’s reduced intellectual curiosity means they are less likely to get in the way of the mindless fun of their peers.
  3. The cheater avoids financial disaster by passing their classes.

People cheat because cheaters have more fun? Now I’m depressed.

2 comments left


Justin Gehring

I love when I come across a topic in more than one location… The video you mentioned was posted on one of my Facebook friends pages, with a comment calling the professor some rather harsh words…

I immediately commented back saying that you can’t say it’s the professors fault the students cheated… Sure, he might have made it easier for them to do so by reusing questions, or by using questions from a test bank… But ultimately it was each and every students choice to cheat.

Now that said, your 100% right that the cheaters see short term gains… They may have more time to socialize. They may even some some money.

But here’s where the long term needs to be looked at: If you cheat, and fail to learn the topic the test was testing you on, and you then try to get a job based on your GPA… You probably will. The question is: will you be able to keep the job… Will you have the skill set to get promoted? Or worse: in the case of being a doctor or a dentist: how long until you get sued for malpractice…

That said, odds are most of them still manage to get by in one way or another… Think of people who have jobs that require the smallest amount of reading, but don’t have the ability to read. They exist.

Ultimately though: the more the educational system can’t combat this, and the more the ethics get compromised, the less the value the degree wil be for everyone… At which point, you’ll see jobs hire more on experience, apprenticeships, internships, etc…. (oh wait… maybe they are already…)

Alexander Micek

You make good points, Justin. I think you’re ready to take your thoughts about school to the next level. Try this article by Paul Graham:

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

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