Sunday, February 3, 2013
The Cheating Species?
Yesterday, there were two stories in the New York Times about cheating in education. One involved some systematic deceptions by Memphis teachers taking the Praxis exam (Link), the other about some Harvard students--perhaps about seventy!--who were dismissed from the university for cheating on a take-home exam (Link).
Here's a link, too, to some information about those Praxis tests for teachers to maintain their certification: Link And here's another link to some sample questions from the Praxis test: Link.
The papers are continually printing cheating stories--teachers who alter kids' grades on standardized tests so that the school will look better (so that the teachers will look better); kids cheating; professors falsifying data in research studies, and on and on and on. As a book reviewer, I've more than once discovered that an author was fabricating information--sometimes egregiously so.
I'm no saint. I cheated a few times in school. On a quiz in elementary school--looking over the shoulder of a classmate who was better prepared. On a quiz in health class in high school--joining a few of my other ethically challenged buddies in a technique that the teacher seemed unable to see: keeping open books on the floor right in front of us, turning pages with the toes of our sneakers. In college, I didn't actually read all of a book that I reported on--in my father's class. (Gets worse, doesn't it?) But that was about it--if you don't count the Snickers bars I sometimes snatched at the J & J Grocery in Enid, Oklahoma, 1953.
The easier something illicit is, the greater the temptation. I think about my former boarding school students, up in their rooms, late at night, a quiz on Huckleberry Finn the next day ... so much other work to do ... a summary of that chapter only a click away ... An awful temptation.
I saw and caught all kinds of cheating when I taught--and missed all kinds, too. One of my most awful memories: Twenty years ago (or so) I had some former students over for a cookout. They were laughing about our class in eighth grade. And then a couple of them laughed about how they used to cheat on my vocabulary quizzes. I felt some door in my heart slam shut. I just couldn't believe that those kids--excellent students all--would have done such a thing--and then laughed about it in my presence, in my house! Needless to say, the cook-out cooled, for me.
We cheat in every competitive--and even noncompetitive--arena. Our relationships, our taxes, the speed limits, parking (I routinely see large vehicles parked in spots clearly labeled Compact Cars Only), board games, insurance claims, resume-writing, whatever.
My old boyhood dog Sooner never cheated. Oh, he could be tricky, though, dashing away with an extra Milk-Bone when I wasn't looking closely. One dog (appropriately named Blitzen) on the campus of Western Reserve Academy, years ago, used to sprint away with the lunch bags of workers on the campus. Most carpenters cannot catch a Dalmatian--even when it has a lunch bag between its teeth.
But Sooner and Blitzen were not cheating: They were just being true to their nature, doing what dogs (and all other animals) do. In The Call of the Wild, the dog Buck realizes that to survive in the North he has to "cheat"--steal from the other dogs before they steal from him.
Maybe it's time to realize that cheating is what we do, too. Perhaps we're just answering our own calls of the wild.
And if we want to stop it, I guess, we just must assume that people are cheating, not that they are being honest.
Cynical enough for you on this cold February day?