Rationalizations for Cheating

A better way to prevent student cheating:

Honor, with its emphasis on doing the right thing for its own sake, is no match for the anxious cynicism of many college students. This point was driven home to me by a junior I met last year in North Carolina. Why not cheat, he argued, given how many of America’s most successful people cut corners to get where they are? Cheating is how the real world works, he said. Look at the politicians who lie or the sluggers who take steroids, or the CEOs who cook the books. The student also pointed to the hurdles he faced as he tried to get ahead: high tuition costs, heavy student loans, low-paying jobs without benefits. America wasn’t a fair place for kids like him, so it made sense to try to level the playing field by bending a few rules.

Many young people take this bleak view. A 2004 poll of high school students found that 59 percent agreed that “successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Young people believe in honor and value integrity; they also worry that living by these beliefs could mean ending up as a loser. In justifying her cheating, one student told a researcher: “Good grades can make the difference between going to medical school and being a janitor.” Few professors have a ready retort to this logic.

It sounds like such a cynical viewpoint, but I have a hard time disagreeing with it. Liars, cheaters, those willing to break the rules for an advantage get ahead. They get caught so rarely that the reward/risk analysis makes the choice clear. Usually I’m loathe to invoke the notion of “role models”, but when politicians, corporate executives, and athletes all do this, often brazenly and without ever being held accountable, there is going to be a trickle down effect into all other areas. People are going to behave in a way to conform with how they believe the real world works (and in this case, the belief matches reality). Ethical behavior simply isn’t rewarded the way unethical behavior is.

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