If the test of character is what you do when nobody's looking, then Harvard students have been failing badly lately, even as they ace their finals. Along with many other schools, students at this Ivy League university are cheating. You can't get through a week now without seeing another newspaper article or post about how students seem to think tests and exams and grades are just an obstacle to maneuver around by any means possible, so that the real work in life can begin.
Long story short on Harvard: students who enrolled in what was reputed to be an easy-A course discovered that the assistant professor was actually making his exams difficult in ways that didn't seem fair. The exams had become tricky and confusing. So they started collaborating or plagiarizing on a take-home final. And they got caught. This culture, where what used to be considered cheating is just standard operating procedure, seems to be spreading throughout many schools. Daniel Solomon, a graduate of Stuyvesant High School wrote in the New York Post in July that students at this school commonly used their cell phones to cheat on Regents exams. He wrote:
At least 72 percent in each grade admitted to copying homework at some point. Ninety percent of seniors said they'd had advance knowledge of test questions at least once per year. And 5 percent of the student body confessed to cheating on SAT and AP exams.
Ironically, Solomon went on to enter Harvard University, where he probably wasn't shocked to see the same tolerance for cheating in higher education.
The Times reflected on all this in an excellent article a few weeks ago:
Large-scale cheating has been uncovered over the last year at some of the nation's most competitive schools, like Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the Air Force Academy and, most recently, Harvard.
Studies of student behavior and attitudes show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others. Moreover, there is evidence that the problem has worsened over the last few decades.
Experts say the reasons are relatively simple: Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and both schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is prohibited.
On the one hand, all of this evidence that we're losing our moral compass is disheartening. Most evil is founded on some kind of dishonesty, and cheating is dishonest. Yes, parents may not be sending strong messages about what's right and wrong, but you don't need your parents to tell you dishonesty is wrong. You know it. It's built into our nature as human beings. It's one of our fundamental impulses: we disguise what we do, especially when the larger social unit will disapprove or when a predator needs to be fooled. In other words, we're hard-wired, through evolution, for deceit and trickery. Yet we also know that dishonesty destroys trust and without trust, society collapses. Trust, and only trust, is what keeps an entire economy afloat.
In earlier times, even only a decade ago, it appears that students were far less likely to cheat. It's unclear why standards of honesty have fallen. It might help if we, as a society and as parents, hammered home that dishonesty on tests in school will lead to dishonesty in adult life. No matter how trivial the deceit, a habit of lying or taking prohibited shortcuts will lead to larger moral lapses. The 2008 collapse of the economy was preceded by years of extremely complex, systemic cheating in various markets, but mostly in real estate, where everyone colluded to look the other way as people got rich by investing in vastly inflated properties and then building paper empires with derivatives founded on them. Many powerful people knew what was happening, and simply made a profit on the lies, and these were the kind of people who would have cheated on their exams in school. Some habits just get more malignant as time goes on. Evil in small things leads to evil at large.
However, there are complexities in this trend that are being acknowledged but not fully understood. Intelligent students recognize that there's a paradigm shift going on with regard to knowledge. In the past, knowledge needed to be stored inside the skull. Now nearly all existing knowledge can be found, in one form or another, in your pocket. The cell phone, which is now a mini-computer and Internet terminal, will tell you nearly anything you need to know a few seconds after you type in your question. Google is altering the nature of our brains and our behavior. For better or worse, students are the early adopters of this new paradigm, and when a teacher sends them home with an exam, there's no expectation that they'll answer it entirely with the knowledge they've memorized. They'll be typing search words. In their adult lives, they'll always have a computer or phone handy to retrieve any information they need.
Education needs to adapt to this new ubiquity of information and knowledge, and open-book exams are one way of doing this. They emphasize finding and making sense of information quickly rather than memorization, and it makes sense to test students this way. What would be cheating in a closed-book exam is acceptable under different rules. Quoting source material, "cutting and pasting," is a core part of any report in school. It's a core part of this blog post. It's only a few steps from the cut-and-paste to full plagiarization and copying of entire answers to tests. And those are crucial steps past a boundary that many students might not fully recognize, now that knowing means Googling. We need to teach the difference between plagiarization and looking something up as support for an answer or argument. Some of what's happening reflects a shift in how we handle knowledge, with a world of it awaiting the touch of our thumbs on a cell phone keyboard. When the cheating occurs it's simply going too far in ways even most students might not entirely recognize as wrong, because they've been Googling since they were in grade school. We need more honesty, but we also need to recognize that maybe we should start testing for the ability to access and make sense of information under pressure -- not simply to store it in our skulls.
Have you ever cheated in a testing situation and what was the outcome? Have you ever chosen to take a test honesty when others around you weren't? How did you fare?
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice