Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Contrast these two news reports on the results of a recent survey by the Josephson Institute of US high school students' self-reported ethics. One report comes from the Associated Press in the US, the other from Agence France Presse. The treatment could hardly be more different. I think the differences are telling.

The AFP reports the results without editorializing. In short, among students cheating, lying, and stealing are rife. The AP by contrast devotes most of its attention to minimizing the significance of the survey's findings, beginning even before it reports what they are. AP quotes a series of educators, every one of whom makes excuses for the results - though in contradictory ways.

Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today's young people are less honest than previous generations, but several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners.

"The competition is greater, the pressures on kids have increased dramatically," said Mel Riddle of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "They have opportunities their predecessors didn't have (to cheat). The temptation is greater."

So which is it? Have kids always cheated like this? Or are they in fact cheating more because of increased "competition" (for whatever)? Or because the opportunity to cheat is greater? Or because the temptation is greater?

A school principal is quoted saying that his teachers have "detected very little cheating", as if that disproves what the students themselves admit to doing. He then goes on to explain the phenomenon he denies – that students now lead "incredibly busy lives".

One teacher admits that maybe students these days cheat a lot but he prefers them anyway over an earlier generation that cheated less because they're "more rewarding to work with". (Here I have to concur. I've always found it more rewarding to work with dishonest students and read their plagiarized papers.) He goes on to argue that it's our responsibility "to create situations where it's easy for kids to do the right things". Evidently encouraging kids to do the right thing because it's the right thing is out of the question for this guy.

Another educator says that these kinds of cheaters aren't in her schools, and that people just like to scapegoat kids for "society's problems".

A superintendent, though described as a leader in an effort to crack down on cheating, is portrayed instead as making further excuses: the system is flawed in overloading students with work, and anyway students need to have explained better "the distinctions between original and borrowed work". (Because, as I've often found, students often just don't understand that an essay they found on line was not in fact written and put there by them.)

In the AP article, the only person not quoted making excuses for, minimizing, dismissing, or denying the existence of cheating is the man who conducted the survey. He actually thinks the increasingly high level of cheating and dishonesty is an ethical problem that goes beyond the questions of internet access and busy schedules.

The American news report is rather revealing of the state of education in the US. On the one hand there's been a phenomenal upsurge in cheating and plagiarism, while on the other educators seem to fall all over themselves trying to make excuses for what they ought instead to be blowing the whistle on.

For years such surveys have showed that a disturbingly high proportion of students see nothing wrong with lying and cheating. In the most recent survey, 64% report that they've cheated on an exam (most more than once) during the last year, and 36% reportedly plagiarized an assignment off the internet.

The most telling results are perhaps these: 26% of the respondents to this anonymous survey also said that they'd lied in response to one or more of the survey questions; 77% said that they're "better than most people they know" at doing what's right; and 93% said they're satisfied with their own ethics and character.

In other words, for a majority of students integrity is a joke. For them the tension is not between behaving with integrity or not, but between projecting the appearance of integrity or failing to do so successfully.

I've seen this play out for more than a decade on college campuses. Plagiarism in particular has become an all-encompassing concern. I've seen many colleagues just abandon assigning research papers because so many of them turn out to be plagiarized. Such papers as continue to be assigned are far less useful in encouraging the kinds of independent research and analytical skills that so much college writing used to be directed toward. Instead more and more they're personal or reflective essays. An astounding amount of writing is done nowadays during class time; that's at least partly because it obviates the plagiarism problem. Otherwise we'll craft an analytical question on an extremely narrow or arbitrary topic so as to avoid any possibility of plagiarism outside of class.

Thus writing is less and less an intellectual challenge and more of a game of cops and robbers. Papers are for the most part shorter, more shallow, and less rigorous. Students just are not getting a chance to learn the kinds of skills that I did at college. And plenty of faculty stopped assigning papers after others did because now most students (not surprisingly) can't write worth a damned. It's a sharp downward spiral both in expectations and performance.

Yes, yes, I know. Teachers have been complaining forever that 'students these days aren't what they used to be'. I decided to put my impressions to the test a few years ago. I read through the senior theses of one department going back a few decades. The quality of research, analysis, and writing remained relatively stable and fairly high over several decades. There was a modest but noticeable downturn in quality in the early 1980s, which leveled off. Then in the early to mid 1990s there was a sharp and continued drop in quality across the board. A few excellent theses continued to pop up, but the majority now were poorly conceived, thinly researched and sloppy.

That conforms to my impressions from the papers I've received over the years. I'd like to suppose I'm just being a curmudgeon, except that I've continued to receive occasional student papers that are up to high standards as papers (even if their insights aren't always brilliant). Fifteen years ago I might see a full range of papers, from extremely careful at one end to junk at the other. These days, however, there's typically a chasm between the best papers and everything else. In other words, plenty of students have grown accustomed in school to making no effort to write well.

In the midst of this attitude, plagiarism has taken hold in a way I wouldn't have predicted 20 years ago. Even more disturbingly, most of the voices heard addressing the issue on college campuses seem to make excuses for plagiarism – along many of the same lines as the educators quoted in the AP report. I've lost count of the number of times I've been assured by other faculty, all earnestly, that students are ignorant of the meaning of plagiarism and need to have the concept explained over and over again; or that plagiarized papers are a sign that a writing assignment was not carefully conceived so as to discourage it; or that plagiarists aren't dishonest or lazy, just overworked – so the remedy is to eliminate or cut back assignments. Faculty will tell you that the big bad internet is to blame. Or that students are being scapegoated for a failed educational model. Or they'll insist that they've never found their students to cheat so there can't be much of a problem on campus (except in your classes). Or against all evidence they declare that handing out extensive research aides obviates the "need" to plagiarize, or that students don't cheat except on excessively difficult assignments.

A very active and lively denial of the ethical problems raised by cheating permeates much of secondary and post-secondary education. Indeed, I've found that some of the people who are loudest in proclaiming themselves to be guardians of academic integrity can be the worst enablers of cheaters. A few years back one of these guardians, a dean at my college, hounded me for a full week to give a student a passing grade somehow for a paper that (she admitted) had been plagiarized. Otherwise, the dean had me know, I'd be responsible for the student not graduating on time. The student was an ignoramus, the dean argued, and therefore might not know that a citation is needed when you swipe something written by somebody else. And so I endured a week of phone calls from this dean urging me to find a different way to grade this paper by pretending that I didn't know it was plagiarized.

Oh yes, this actually occurred. And, no, refusing to countenance cheating isn't a popular position.

What few academics care to face up to is the clear fact, documented by these surveys, that cheating has become endemic. There is now an ethos of cheating among this generation of students. It's more than just permissible to cheat; it's expected. And those who should be shining a light upon the problem are instead busy trying to cover up for it.

I can only speculate as to the cause (ultimately I think it's the parents even more than teachers who are to blame for permitting it to grow). And none of this is to deny that there are still very many students who have the highest ethical standards. Hell, to maintain your integrity in an era in which that's considered quaint is itself a pretty good testament to character.

Never the less educators need to drop the game of denial. A story such as the AP report, in which everybody feels obliged to make excuses for obscene levels of cheating, is nothing short of an embarrassment to the profession. We need to come to grips with the well-documented fact that for a majority of this generation of students, manipulating the system has now become the system.

The US is facing grave problems these days, not least because we've too long endured under dishonest and manipulative political leadership. The times require a new politics of honesty and integrity. I don't believe we have any real chance of sustaining that if we can't demand the same standards of ourselves.

crossposted at

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  • From my Ed Biz background I've noted two basic forms of cheaters: Those who really didn't have a clue that citations were needed; and, those who didn't care that citations were necessary. The Type I's were at least open to suggestion and improvement; the Type II's were mostly impossible, and often tried to pass themselves off as Type I's.

    I attributed the lack of essay skills to high class loads in some departments -- time constraints made giving multiple choice tests more manageable than reading essays. However, what was lost was cross-curriculum essay writing practice. Frankly, another problem was that some instructors (not proficient writers themselves) tended not to give essay assignments at all.
    The most common ploy at the secondary level was the plaintive cry, "This isn't English class!" To which the rejoinder was -- uh huh, but since English is the Lingua Franca in here, I expect you'll write in a respectable version of it.

    By Blogger Desert Beacon, at 3:08 AM  

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