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Editorials and Opinions

Getting by with a little help from your friends

By Alice Lee
Published: November 2009

Every student is taught from toddlerhood that cheating is dishonest, morally reprehensible, and wholly bad. Every year, the idea is reinforced via first-day-of-school lectures, disclaimers on the syllabus describing the consequences of cheating, and periodic warnings from teachers.

Logically, the principle is simple: schoolwork should be comprised entirely of your personal effort. Cheating operates under the lie that your submitted work is yours and yours alone even though you borrowed from other sources, whether they were aware or unaware. Not only is it unfair to the possibly unwitting donors of the material, but it shows disrespect to the teacher and to your classmates that you would present such a falsehood.

In black and white, it looks straightforward. But in high school, the lines often get blurred.
What if the “victim of your cheating is actually a good friend who wants to help you out after a long week of essays and exams? What if you and a classmate are hopelessly confused by a multiple choice question that you didn’t encounter in your all-night study session and decide to discreetly compare answers? What if you sympathize with students in another block of the same class and let slip the test’s tricky essay questions before they take it? Is that so wrong?

The administration’s stance is, of course, a firm and resounding no. Anything that strays from the beaten path of completely independent study and test-work merits punishment and negative response.

The purists contend that not only is cheating dishonest, but in allowing the dishonest student an unnaturally higher grade, it makes it harder for honest classmates to do well under the curve. It demonstrates contempt toward them and toward your teachers, with whom you have a contract of mutual respect. It also suggests that in cheating, you forfeit to the race for better grades at the expense of your own integrity and self-respect.

These are all fair arguments, in an ideal world, devoid of pressure and competition.

Respect, self-directed and otherwise, and integrity are weighty matters. And the sad truth is that the high school student’s day-to-day worries do not revolve around moral fiber and strength of character. We think about term one grades and whether they’re high enough to meet the standards of our dream college. We think about how many open response questions we have to answer correctly to scrape in the grade that’ll keep our parents satisfied. We think about what we perceive is our duty as students, which is to rake in as many GPA points as possible.

And while people might raise a protest against such a definition, it is the unfortunate fact that top-level colleges, the highest level of aspiration for students our age, set a standard. They do not accept C+ students who insist that they made a spectacular effort; they accept the A students who keep their lips delicately closed about the ugly process of getting the grade.

So it stands thus: strict condemnation of cheating coinciding with increasing negative pressure to get good grades. In such a situation, the desperate student asks him or herself, which is the lesser of two evils? And when it comes down to failing a test, which guarantees negative pressure and consequences, or cheating on it, which has a fair chance of going unnoticed, the latter usually wins out.

As well, in such conditions, one has to factor in empathy. By the current system, the accomplice to cheating is just as guilty as the cheater, all benevolent motivation notwithstanding. This both discourages camaraderie and intensifies the sense of rivalry between students; Good Samaritans are not to be tolerated.

I cannot say that I advocate cheating, or that it is unequivocally good or bad. But the students who let their moral standards slip, driven into a corner by too many obligations, who only want to do well and satisfy everyone’s expectations, who haven’t slept well in weeks, are neither weak nor dishonest. They are desperate.

So the argument against cheating of the administration and other firm moralists is not wrong. On the contrary, it is perfectly valid. That is why it is so cruelly absurd that students are driven to measures that contradict those reasonable expectations.

They are made to believe that they have no other choice in the fiercely competitive and high-pressure academic environment that our society has cultivated, and in that diminished capacity of moral reasoning, they cheat to get ahead.

The analogy of the “gray area between black and white is well-known to the point of cliché. That being said, the subject of cheating and the motivation behind it’€a clear case of gray’€should not be subject to judgment that is so severely black.

It begs the question, of course, whether a revised system would not just encourage cheating in students who aren’t actually in dire situations. It certainly wouldn’t be easy for such a reform policy to be pursued, but if a fair system of appeals for offenders could be organized, maybe a balance could be achieved and student cheating could taper off.

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