09/11/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Cheating Ourselves: Education and Its Discontents

All advanced post-industrial democracies are facing uncertain times - from anemic economic growth, to seemingly permanent budget crises, and growing public distrust of the institutions of government. As the strictures and structures of society lose their grip and weaken the sense of common purpose and social cohesion -- a fragile achievement, in complex plural democracies, an anomic darkness sets in the public sphere.

Nowhere is the current anomie more troubling than in the endemic of cheating at our premier institutions including, most recently, Harvard (where both a star Professor and perhaps up to 130 students have been caught in cheating scandals) and New York's exemplary exam school, Stuyvesant high school (where some 60 students have or are facing suspension because of cheating). Of course, there has always been cheating. But when the institutions that strive to embody the highest standards of excellence find themselves responding to cheating in such numbers - a social rather than an individual pathology is the likely culprit.

What is at stake for education is nothing more and nothing less than what is fundamental to a democracy: our ability to provide the next generation with the basic tools, competencies, sensibilities, and above all, the compass they will need to navigate the ever more complex world of the 21st Century.

We Americans are ever enamored of mechanical solutions of the silver bullet variety. Better software to catch cheaters, ever vigilant mechanisms to secure tests and test taking, more blunt warning of what constitutes plagiarism will surely greet every freshman arriving in college this week.

But the root of the problem lies elsewhere. In recent times, our national conversation on education has been too focused on the race for scarce jobs and fears of our decline in the global race to the top. If somebody else wins we lose. It's now a global a zero sum game.

Education is not about winning Gold Medals: it is about the formation of character and habits of mind.

Education today is out of balance: to much high stakes testing - inviting too much cheating, and a misplaced focus on giving kids skills for what we imagine to be the scarce jobs of the future. But to reduce education to manufacturing the workers and consumers of the future is a missed opportunity. Realigning education to its ancient root will go a long way to reversing the current malaise. We need to once again think of education in the service of nourishing a dignified, engaged, and autonomous life. Education at its root is about human flourishing. Furthermore, it is the foundation for an engaged, mindful, citizenry to intelligently gather the relevant information and deliberate to decide the pressing issues of the day. Of course, education also ought to be for giving all citizens the tools - cognitive and emotional, to make a successful transition to the 21st Century globalized labor market of the Information Age. Four E's animate a successful and authentic education for the 21st Century: excellence, engagement, equity, and empathy. Think of cheating as robbing success of the 4 E's: the educational equivalent of a quick fix and a fleeting high.

Education is inauthentic when it simply becomes a means to an end. Cheating then is no big deal - just another means to an end. The end of education should be human flourishing, freedom and a more engaged citizenry with a view to the common good.