Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cheat to Thrive

Recent news reports of large scale academic cheating at top schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York City and Harvard University have drawn a lot of attentions.  In the recent NY Times article Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception by Richard Perez-Pena,  Professor Donald L. McCabe of the Rutgers University Business School who is a leading researcher on cheating was quoted to say “There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive.  But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.”  He may be right that there have been more reported incidents or such a trend indicated by surveys.  However, sorry to sound cynical, should we be surprised if there have always been people “at the top”, students or not, who cheat to thrive?

One finds a definition of cheat in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a : to practice fraud or trickery
b : to violate rules dishonestly.  Wikipedia article on cheating gives it a broad definition:an immoral way of achieving a goal. It is generally used for the breaking of rules to gain advantage in a competitive situation. Cheating is the getting of reward for ability by dishonest means.”  

There are several critical words in these definitions that warrant closer examinations.  What is considered immoral?  Is it a function of particular community and time?  Who define the rules and how are rules upheld and enforced?   Are the criteria of cheating absolute or relative?  What if there is no reward involved?  What if the underlying situation is not competitive?  Is the same behavior now still considered cheating?

For the recent Harvard scandal (see NY Times article Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated on Exam), the professor did tell the students that they must work alone in the take-home open-book, open-internet final exam.   When the professor saw the similarity of the answers in many of the papers submitted, he did the right thing and reported the incident to the administration who opened the investigation.  For the Stuyvesant High School scandal (see NY Times article Allegations of Widespread Cheating), the scandal became public when the Principal confiscated a student’s cell phone during a city language exam and uncovered evidences of widespread cheating. 

Are these students “cheat to survive” – to survive in a highly competitive environment?  Note even at Stuyvesant and Harvard, by definition, half of the students are below median in their class!  Since the cheats appeared to be “business as usual” to many of the students involved according to the reports, I would guess at least many of the offending students belong to the group of “cheat to thrive”.  

Thus a more sombering question is what is happening with our society as a whole?   Is there a trend of increasing moral delinquency especially among the elites?   Is this just a tip of the iceberg?    After all, these are not isolated incidents and students have not been the only ones caught cheating.  Only a little more than a year ago, 178 Atlanta public school teachers and principals were accused of altering students’ grades in high-stake standardized tests.  

As many have observed, technology and tool advances have made cheating easier.  Obvious example is cell phones with camera and texting.  Copy and paste features in word processing software allows people to lift others’ writings effortlessly.  Further, there are abundant resources online at our finger tips.  With powerful search engines, one can plagiarize any subject matter even at advanced levels.  All in all, the popularity and ease of sharing over Internet have eroded the time-honored respect for originality, authorship and ownership.  I have seen highly educated and accomplished adults lifting regularly others’ work in their communications without attributions.  While one may argue that there are no explicit or direct rewards in some of these cases, one cannot stop wondering what kind of role models and what effects would it have on next generations? 

Misguided promotion of group work in school is also a suspect.   Group work sometimes does degenerate into straightforward copying and sharing of final outputs and credit without division of work and responsibility.  To some, the lesson learned from team work is how to get more easy awards by taking others’ credits instead of the true meaning of collaboration that one plus one can be bigger than 2 and that it is the only way to work a complex problems effectively. 

Competition for reward and satisfaction is certainly a huge factor in inducing cheating behaviors, especially for the elites.  A famous example can be found in the NOVA program Secret of Photo 51 that details the history of Rosalind Franklin's contributions in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.  The 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins who, along with their Lab directors, knowingly neglected to mention that their successful discovery and breakthrough model was critically dependent on Franklin’s experimental results to which they had obtained access without her permission.   I am sure you have no problem finding plenty examples in politics and business world where people constantly dance between the fine legal and ethical lines.   In his Sept 24th New York magazine article Cheating Upwards, Robert Kolder had an in-depth profile about Nayeem Ahsan, the Stuyvesant High junior who was in the center of the recent cheating scandal.  Do you know what was his dream college?  Yes, it was Harvard.  Do you know what his dream career is?  It is investment banker.   Should we be surprised that there is less and less trust the public have on our political and business leaders? 

Why do people cheat?  I can think of many reasons and you can too: no one is watching, others do it (and I would be disadvantaged if I don’t), the reward is worth the risk of getting caught and the possible penalty if caught, the thrills and pleasure, help a friend in need, it won’t really hurt others, and because I can, just to name a few.  Sadly, cheating appears to be universal throughout human history in all civilizations.  Let us be honest.  A vast majority of us do have the temptation to cheat from time to time (Perhaps,  it comes from our survival and competitive instinct?).  Given that, and given that a dominating factor in cheating is how easy it is and how high the penalty is, the solution seems clear.  More transparent process, more safeguards, raise penalty and enforce the rules.  Success should be commended but cheat to thrive must not be tolerated.

Talk to you soon!

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