“Did you cheat in school when you were my age?” My 12-year-old niece looked at me as she asked the question, then turned to her father, my younger brother.
We were talking about her school, a gymnasium outside Munich. Because I knew about the intense pressure at these elite German schools, I wondered whether German students cheated as much as their American counterparts. In surveys of American students, more than 70% admit to cheating on an exam at least once in the past year, with close to 50% admitting to cheating two or more times. My niece confessed that once she ‘helped some friends’ on a test by giving them answers, and that other kids did the same thing.
And now that she had ‘fessed up, she was turning the tables on us.
My brother–her father–answered first and told a tale about widespread cheating in 7th grade geography class. We all laughed as he recalled an aging teacher more intent on sneaking drinks from the bottle he kept in his desk than on monitoring student behavior. “I used to keep the book open on my lap and look up the answers,” my brother admitted. “The only hard part was turning the pages so he didn’t see me doing it.” The implication of my brother’s tale was that cheating was actually the teacher’s fault–for not being attentive, for being burned out, for being a drunk. Perhaps that’s the rationalization we eventually come to as the years pass.
“I cheated in another class and got caught,” he admitted, “and that was awful.” As punishment he and two other culprits had to take their tests in the auditorium. “Just the three of us in this huge place, sitting about 100 seats apart. The only way we could have cheated would have been to yell out the answers.”
“That must have been so embarrassing! Did it make you stop cheating,” his daughter wanted to know?
She had asked the most important question of all, what makes students stop cheating? We know that seven out of ten students cheat in school, and nearly eight out of ten admit to lying to their teachers. Not only that, the same Josephson Institute of Ethics survey found that nine out of ten students are “satisfied with their own ethics and character.” “If we keep in mind that liars and cheaters may lie on a survey, it’s clear that the reality is even worse than these numbers indicate,” Michael Josephson, the Institute’s founder, said. And the reality may be worse among high achievers. According to a survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, eighty percent of top students admit to cheating on an exam, an increase of ten percentage points in fifteen years.
If we’re not a nation of unrepentant cheating adults, what happens to put us back on the (relatively) straight and narrow? That is, what makes us stop?
Her question took both of us back in time. Her father smiled ruefully. “I stopped,” he said, “because the worst possible thing happened. I got an A on a big test and the teacher assumed that I had cheated.” He hadn’t been a good student, he told us, and not long after the cheating incident he had a test in Earth Science. “I just happened to study the right pages in the book, all the stuff about geology, and I aced it,” he said.
A few days later the teacher came up to him in class and said that he had done very well on the exam. “I was excited and asked him what I had gotten. He just looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and told me that I had done much better than he had expected. The way he said much told me that he thought I had cheated. I wanted to say, ‘I didn’t cheat,’ but that would have made it worse. From then on, no matter what I did, I knew that he thought I was a cheater. It was so unfair.” He paused. “Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that’s what I needed, because I never cheated again.”
“What about you, Uncle John,” my niece asked? “Did you cheat in school?”
Yes, I admitted, in junior high school, just like your dad. “I never got caught, but I often wished I had been. I would have been a happier kid.”
They looked at me doubtfully as I began my story. In 7th grade English class our teacher had assigned us the task of writing poems, something few boys welcomed. In our house anyway, poetry was unmistakably feminine: Our mother read books of poetry, could recite dozens of poems from memory, and even wrote her own poems. I, however, was 13 and struggling to impress my father, who had shown little appreciation for meter or rhyme. So I put off the assignment until the last minute. Then in desperation I took a book from the very top shelf in our library, one of the poetry books Mom had saved from her own youth. I found a short poem attributed to ‘Anon.’ I copied it word for word, gave it a new title, and submitted it as my own.
A few days later our English teacher handed back the poems…to everyone but me. I panicked, assuming that my plagiarism had been discovered and was about to be made public. What happened instead turned out to be worse: the teacher called me to the front of the class and asked me to read my poem aloud. I still recall the opening lines:
Undaunted and fighting relentlessly,
The ship sailed on;
Constantly battling the raging sea,
From dusk to dawn.
There were three or four more verses like that. Red-faced, I read them aloud and then listened as the teacher praised my imagination and my understanding of meter. Did your mother help, she wanted to know? I was able to answer that question honestly. Have you read this to your parents, she asked? Again I could honestly say No. They will be so proud when you show them, she said. I had no intention of doing that, not on a bet. Suppose my mother recognized it? Worse yet, suppose it was one of the poems she had memorized as a kid? As far as I was concerned, my parents were never going to see this poem.
My teacher, however, had other plans. “Johnny, your poem is going to be in the next issue of our school literary magazine. Aren’t you proud?” Far from it. I wanted to disappear. In due time the magazine appeared with “The Brave Ship” by John Merrow listed in the table of contents. I held my breath, expecting momentarily to be exposed as a cheat, but nothing happened. Any thoughts I had of confessing vanished, because I was in the clear.
Or so I thought. “I have some great news, class,” my English teacher said one day in late spring. “We have a winner in this class in the National Poetry Contest.” She reminded us that, as faculty advisor to the literary magazine, she decided what student work would be submitted. She had submitted four or five works this year, she said, but only one 7th grader had won. “Congratulations, Johnny,” she said.
My classmates applauded, no doubt mockingly. “You will be receiving a certificate at graduation, and your poem will be published in the National Collection. People everywhere will read it.”
Of course my parents learned of my prize. I held my breath as Mom read the poem, relaxed as she gushed with praise. Even Pop was proud as he held the book, but I was paralyzed with fear. Surely some reader somewhere would say, ‘Hey, I’ve read that somewhere else.’ Or maybe ‘Anon’ would stumble across ‘The Brave Ship’ and experience the shock of recognition. Again I was sure that I would be exposed…but on a national scale this time. That night I prayed, asking God for a deal: if He let me get away with this, I would never cheat again.
“Did you cheat again,” my niece asked? “For the rest of junior high I was scared of being exposed as a plagiarist,” I told her. That wasn’t all, I realized. What put me back on the right path was going to a high school that had an honor code, where your word and your reputation meant something. In that environment cheating was something you just didn’t do, and so I didn’t.
I now believe that several conditions are necessary to minimize cheating—and improve education at the same time.
Of course, schools must have safeguards and sanctions—that is, adults have to be watching, and cheaters must be punished. However, cops and cameras and harsh penalties are never enough–and ultimately are counterproductive. Kids will find ways to defeat an oppressive atmosphere, and learning always suffers when schools resemble prisons.
And so teachers cannot be assigned to teach huge numbers of kids, because that makes it impossible to get to know their work. And work has to develop over time, by which I mean that papers have to be written and rewritten and rewritten again, so that the teacher sees the work develop.
When schools and the adults in them show respect for students and for learning itself, it’s possible to develop what I call ‘a moral atmosphere,’ a climate where students themselves enforce the code by the way they conduct themselves. When student leaders and older students say, “We don’t do that here,” about cheating, bullying and other nasty behavior, their disapproval of bad behavior, and their modeling of good behavior, creates positive social pressure.
Perhaps cheating can’t be eliminated entirely, but it doesn’t have to be a constant concern.