Academic honesty: More than grades are at stake

While traveling earlier this week, I dug into the news and found a great article that has a lot of relevance for the experience of young people trying to prove themselves. So much has been written about the negative effects of academic pressure on students. Research highlights the lack of sleep and increasing rates of depression and anxiety. At Colorado Academy, we are working hard to create a supportive learning environment that challenges and inspires students in authentic ways. We are also trying to help kids make wise ethical decisions. It is a core part of our mission, and it plays out every day as we talk to students about how choose to handle situations, and in some cases, how they might choose differently.

The popular narrative of pressure on young people often overlooks the kind of ethical decisions that students make when they feel pressure. Students live a surreal life in many ways. They are expected to be outstanding in subjects as diverse as mathematics, English, science, athletics, the arts, history, and world languages. In the academic realm, students are regularly tested and quizzed. (What adult in their right mind would want to experience this as a part of their daily existence? That is one reason why at CA we work to have authentic assessments and engaging curriculum). Students are quite aware that their grades matter in terms of affecting their future trajectories. So, it should be somewhat obvious that the pressure to cheat in order to get ahead is ever-present.

Last week in the New York Times column, “The Ethicist,” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a high school student raises a question in the piece titled “What Should I Do About My Cheating Classmate?” I thought the question and response were worth sharing with our community. Parents, I would urge you to talk to your child. I am not responding to some crisis, but just something that appears at any school across the nation in this hyper-competitive age. No grade is ever worth compromising one’s integrity. Colleges and universities care far more about this kind of disciplinary issue compared to nearly any other type of infraction. But, most importantly, cheating ultimately hurts one’s ability to learn and leads to a slippery slope of other bad ethical decisions.

Among the few times when we are confronted by such infractions at CA, I am always amazed by the growth that students demonstrate. Most of the time, it is an unintentional act, such as a student not including a citation for a quote or paraphrase. Yet, any such infraction is an accusation that can sting, because it goes to the core of someone’s ethics. I think parents can help the school by sharing their own stories of ethical dilemmas with their children. All humans face temptations and challenges and, when under pressure, humans often show fragility. I think modeling this kind of vulnerability can help young people understand why getting a lower grade and doing the right thing is better for a student’s long-term growth and happiness. Ultimately, reminding your child that grades are not a condition of your love will help your child make the right decision for him or herself.

Here’s the article:

I am a senior at a competitive high school. My best friend is known for being a top student and the president of the student body. Over the last year, I caught him cheating on tests and plagiarizing work several times. When I confront him, he insists that he is not cheating, just outsmarting the system. I’m concerned that his academic dishonesty may jeopardize his future and ruin his reputation. What should I do?
– Name Withheld

Rosie Ruiz was declared the female winner of the 1980 Boston Marathon—before it came out that she joined the race only for its last mile. She wanted the rewards without putting in the effort. As in all competitions, the substantial rewards for high status in a high school make cheating attractive. But your best friend is not only cheating in that race; he’s cheating in the proverbial game of life. The fake record he’s assembling makes him eligible for all sorts of social rewards—the respect of teachers and peers, a place at the college of his choice, career options—that he hasn’t earned. You’re concerned that his habits will lead to his being caught, punished, stigmatized. But he has already lost out. When your putative successes are faked, you’re not entitled to self-respect.

Worse, his cheating amounts to abusing the trust of others and fraying the social bonds that sustain us. To cheat, after all, is to take advantage of students who don’t. Your friend stands higher than he’s entitled to in the academic rankings of the school, which means that others are doing less well than they should be. And he’s undermining the systems of evaluation that the school uses to tell who is doing well and who needs help.

Is his conduct a reflection of surrounding norms or pressures? Your own response suggests otherwise. It’s possible that he feels his family would value him less if his record weren’t so stellar; they may even have pushed him in ways that encourage this thought. But of course, he’s being dishonest with them as well, and were he exposed, he could have family relationships to repair.

You’re not going to report him to the authorities, I know. That would get you in trouble with your peers and violate the norms of friendship. But you can keep pointing out that he’s wrong about his moral assessment of the situation. For what it’s worth, the story of Rosie Ruiz is a cautionary one. A few years after the marathon prize was taken from her, she went to prison for embezzlement. It was her first criminal conviction; it was not her last.