Should we be Charitable to Cheaters? by John Gifford, Head of Middle School
After listening to another story about the Harvard cheating scandal, I was left wondering how these students—considered some of the brightest in the country—could (allegedly, at least) make this immoral decision. Wasn’t this supposed to be an enlightened generation who would fix the things that we’d messed up? They are more connected and aware than their parents, more engaged, more socially conscious and globally involved…And then they go and cheat?
I thought I’d had an epiphany. I went to my wife, a sounding board of great wisdom and withering honesty, and asked, “What do you think of this? We need to take all the morality completely out of the cheating conversation. It isn’t about morality. Cheaters aren’t bad people; they are not even acting badly when they cheat. They are just being human. We are evolutionarily programmed to cheat.”
It is not a new idea. We, as a species, evolved in an environment of limited resources. We can’t help ourselves from eating too much salt, fat and sugar because evolutionarily speaking those were substances that were rare and valuable as our species developed. Now that they are plentiful, we can’t un-program ourselves from wanting and consuming these easy resources. The species that could steal the meal without expending a great deal of energy would have an advantage over the species that expended a great amount of energy for the same reward. Can’t the same be said for Harvard students hoping to get an easy “A”?
The focus, I suggested, should be on what those decisions, in aggregate, do to us. The lazy way, over time, leads to a less capable individual. The easy way out leads to an adult who has not exercised the skills needed to be successful autonomously.
“I shouldn’t have Middle School students, who probably don’t fully realize why they cheat, feel like bad people because they do so.”
Laurie got that knitted-brow look that she gets when she thinks I’m crazy.
“This isn’t 'either, or;' it is 'both, and,'” she said. “You can explain to them that there might be an evolutionary root to cheating, but that doesn’t let them off the hook. Sure, we have evolved to figure out how to feed ourselves each day but we have also evolved to read and make art and take care of each other. We have evolved enough to know that it is right to behave yourself when you are part of a group.
“They should absolutely feel guilty! They should feel withering guilt because when they cheat they are not being fair to the group. That teacher spent time writing a test designed to try and help figure out what they know or don’t. The cheating kid takes away that teacher’s ability to do their job as well as they can. Other students in the class worked their tails off to get the grade they deserve on that test and then a peer waltzes in and scores better than they did by looking at their paper. It is wrong and they should understand that it is wrong. Especially when they are in the Middle School, they should hear that cheating is wrong. You can also explain to them that it could be, in part, evolutionary. They should also understand that over time it will make them less capable. But yes: they should be made to feel guilty as well because their actions are completely unfair.”
She’s right, of course. And I’m not sure why I all of a sudden wanted to shift my strategy and offer the kids one-stop-shopping on why not to cheat. I have always felt that that, in work with Middle Schoolers, you always work in five different ways to teach the same lesson. Repetition is good (parents know that their children never hear the first four requests to do a chore). They demand (and are probably owed) a reason behind a mandate. Finally, not every kid will react to every strategy—some are motivated by fear, some by duty, and some by reason.
At Nobles, we must join forces with parents to aid in the development of young people who want to see academic success through honest means. Convincing them to put in the time to “do it right”, and not take shortcuts, will take a multipronged approach.