The "Lance Armstrong Story" has the potential to become a classic American literary tragedy, on a par with "Death of a Salesman." His deceptions and self-denial, combined with his fame and status as hero/icon, make him a perfect leading character, both deeply flawed and a product of his time and place in our society.
There is a significant portion of the American population today that operates under a "win-at-all-costs" ethic, which produces a lot of pressure to cheat. Once cheating begins - in a sport, in a business, or in a classroom ¬- it becomes harder and harder for those who don't cheat to compete against the cheaters. After a while, it becomes easy to rationalize dishonesty, because cheating becomes the new normal.
In stark contrast to the South African swimmer who admitted to cheating to win his gold medal, Armstrong is now taking some personal responsibility for contributing to the culture of cheating surrounding his sport. By publicly regretting that he did nothing to stop it, Armstrong sharpens the point on a lesson to be learned from his downfall.
In my classroom, I can see how well-meaning people can unknowingly help create the pressure to succeed that pushes students to cheat.
Last month, I watched a student from an honors class melt into a mess of tears and sobbing as she tried to get me to change her B to an A. Her reaction to receiving a grade she could have been proud to have, instead rivaled the grieving one sometimes sees at a funeral.
The roots of her emotions, I think, were revealed when she told me, "Now people are telling me I'm a bad person."
"Who's telling you that you are a bad person for getting a B?" I asked.
Whether or not anyone at home actually said the words, "bad person," in response to this student's grade, that's what she heard. And that's what's important.
I wonder how often our children interpret our effort to encourage them as an implicit instruction to do "whatever it takes" to rise to the top. While we are thinking, "Spend more time studying," they may be hearing, "If cheating is what it takes, then so be it."
To find out, I want to do a one-question, multiple-choice survey of my students: "Given the choice, what do you think your parents would rather see on your report card - (A) an A you cheated to get, or (B) a C you came by without cheating?"
Then, I want to ask the parents which grade they would, in fact, rather see, and compare the answers of parent and child. My expectation is that, if people answer honestly, there will be a significant amount of disconnect between what the parents say they want and what the students think they want. If so, we will have found one place where we can begin the work to change today's culture of cheating - by making it clear to the next generation that success without integrity is not success at all.
Meanwhile, this is the kind of thing you could do at home with your own kids. Here's how it might work:
At your next family gathering (dinner tonight, perhaps) write out the question on a piece of paper and put it at the center of the table. Have someone read it aloud and check to make sure everyone understands that this is a hypothetical question and that the only acceptable responses are (A) or (B). Then, have each person write an answer on a card and place it face-down on the table. Let the kids reveal their answers first, but don't react to any of the responses. Let it play out, because when you show your hand, the door will be open for a healthy conversation about the value you put on integrity.
I'll let you know how things work out in my classroom.
Please let us know how it works out at home.