The cant of cheating and judging
(Editor's note: Commenters Kim and Cynthia swiftly identified the picture at the left as Diogenes weary after searching for an honest man. Kudos!)
You know, I am a vocabulary nut. My love affair with words is longstanding. Some words are just cool to say or read. "Lethargy!" "Antediluvian!" "Mesozoic!" "Obfuscate!" "Empiricism!" "Ontological!" "Eschatology!" "Disingenuous!" All just fascinating words!
Another word I like is "cant." For such a short little word, cant has several meanings. Three of them occurred to me as I meditated further on cheating and American society.
One meaning of cant is a "slant" or "slope." Another meaning of cant is "the particular language or vocabulary of a certain group or used in a certain field of study." A third meaning of cant is "insincere talk about religion or morals." When we have talked about cheating and plagiarism, all three of these definitions of cant have been demonstrated.
My previous posts (here, and here, and here) about grading and plagiarism have generated some commentary in the Edusphere, which is a very good thing, regardless of your beliefs about these two issues. Some of that commentary has been in my comments section, and some has been on other's blogs. All cool! Everyone has certainly had their own slant or bias or agenda, including me. That suggested the first definition of "cant." But I find the consideration of the second and third definitions of "cant" in all of these discussions most fascinating. Some of the words that have been utilized in the cant of this discussion have included "ethics," "right," "wrong," "judgment," "punishment," mistake," "responsibility," "cheating," "theft," "punitive," "behavior," "rants," and "tolerance." I would like to meditate upon some of these words, and their meanings and contexts within this discussion of academic honesty, with a brief side-trip to grading policy, but focusing primarily on the use of particular vocabulary and upon morality.
Some would say that our society does tolerate cheating and plagiarism. Perhaps I understand the word "tolerate" differently than others, but to me, "tolerate" has an implication of acceptance. I find this concept -- um, ha-ha-- unacceptable. (Ba-doom ching!)
There are many problems I see with tolerating plagiarism, a behavior which I believe prevents our students from learning as surely as being unable to read does. But there are two separate questions being muddled together here.
From its inception, this discussion has had two very distinct parts: there is an ETHICAL part (Is cheating acceptable? If not--apparently a big IF-- what is our proper response to discourage such behavior?) and there is an ASSESSMENT part (what factors should be counted in grades?), which I think the previous comments have already addressed thoroughly if not completely satisfactorily. But right now let's deal with ethics, which is that field of philosophy which deals with determining right and wrong in the broadest application (a subfield known as metaethics,) and how to create standards of ethical behavior (a subfield known as normative ethics), and then specifically how to apply those standards to specific fields such as abortion, or animal rights, or even education (a subfield known as applied ethics).
Ethically, I believe that there is no such thing as a "tolerable" amount of cheating or lying. I often hear as a defense from students and parents that,
"Everyone does it." Or, "Everyone cheats."
Many of us refuse to get sidetracked or deign to respond to the obvious untruth of that statement, but I wonder if we should be so unconcerned as to let it pass unchallenged? Let me just point out that the addition of one brief adjective phrase to that statement WOULD actually make it true:
"Everyone who is unethical cheats."
Further, I would also posit a further statement, using my understanding of the word "tolerate" as defined above:
"Everyone who tolerates cheating is unethical."
These are harsh words, yes. They are definitely judgmental words. But ethics and morality is about judgment. Period. And see the third definition of "cant" again. Now judging right and wrong behavior is certainly not without controversy-- to quote part of one of my favorite lines of one of my favorite movies, "Ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?" Not to mention Diogenes, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, and Friedrich Nietzche, the king of ethical relativism, who would oppose my two statements above and claim that morals and ethics are completely individual constructs-- which in my mind is a way of saying that whatever one can get away with, one can claim is good.
That's basically the starting position of those who claim that "Everyone does it." Besides that mind-whirring brief spin into ethical philosophy, I also believe that people who say such things are disingenuous at best. Once one posits that some cheating is acceptable or some lying is acceptable, where exactly does one draw the line? They are claiming that cheating is acceptable, but we all know that that applies only if THEY are not the ones being harmed by being themselves cheated.
In fact these people are usually the first ones to start screaming if they believe that something that happens to them is "Not fair!" It is the rare person indeed who cheats AND accepts that they will be cheated as well. I don't think that Nietzsche himself would have been so accepting.
But besides that, very seriously, my stance is that cheating and stealing actually DOES harm the person doing the cheating or stealing or plagiarizing. I will explain this now.
On the behavior side in the specific example of education, how does anyone expect students to learn and improve if they do not do their own work, and if they do not understand that there are consequences for choosing not to learn by stealing someone else's work? Choosing not to learn is a behavior, admittedly, but one which I would like to think we would actually seek to discourage in students. Choosing not to learn certainly has severe consequences for society as a whole. (And back to the grading and teaching part of this discussion, for those who say we should not judge-- whether we like it or not, every assessment is a judgment, in the broadest sense of the word.) We teachers (and parents, and adults) are in the business of informing, and of judging. "Informing" can here mean "providing knowledge," "shaping," and "guiding." Here I use the term "judging" in the evaluative sense of the word. When adults abdicate their very real responsibility to judge and to correct, we leave our students adrift and unable to determine how to help themselves and how to discipline themselves.
I have heard some say that we should understand that "everyone makes mistakes." True enough. But a mistake is something a reasonable and sane person tries to avoid. Mistakes are rooted in inattention, not deliberation.
Plagiarism and cheating are not mistakes but deliberate acts. Unless what one means by "mistake" is "what I call a bad action when I get caught, hopefully to deflect blame." Perhaps the mistake is in the getting caught. Hmmm. Depressingly cynical and nihilistic.
But let's pretend that we were to classify plagiarism or cheating as a "mistake." Just because something IS a mistake, doesn't mean there are not consequences for that mistake. Mistakes do not exist in a vacuum. A pitot tube in an Airbus aircraft is not replaced when it has been recommended-- serious consequences may have occurred due to that mistake. A pilot mistakenly misreads the altimeter-- there can be serious consequences for that mistake. A driver takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone as she is passing a bicyclist-- there can be serious consequences for that mistake. An overworked federal inspector misses evidence of salmonella in one of the hundreds of peanut processing plants he is charged to inspect-- there are consequences for that mistake.
We are deluding ourselves if we think the band-aid word of "mistake" should mean that there is no consequences or no responsibility. This touches upon "cant" in both its second and third meanings which I listed at the start of this post.
There are plenty of things in this world that are mistakes. But deliberately choosing to steal someone else's ideas --or possessions-- is not a "mistake." It is not an "accident." It is a deliberate choice which harms not only the person whose ideas were stolen, but also, in the case of academic plagiarism, harms the students who have plagiarized, because they have also deliberately chosen not to learn the information or skill that the plagiarized assignment was supposed to demonstrate. Cheaters hurt themselves. And how can anyone who cares about students stand idly by while they hurt themselves or deny themselves an education?
Now let's move away from plagiarism and cheating for a moment, and to a general discussion of the cant of our discussion about grading. I am also troubled by anyone, on either side of the grading debate, who views grades as punishment. One thing I think we all should be able to agree about is that grades should be assessments, and it is obvious that one of the goals of those who seek to refine grading systems is that they want to make grades less subjective and more objective-- admirable on the surface, if not a bit unrealistic, but let's leave that aside. I am mightily troubled by students who don't earn the grade they "wanted" to then claim that they are being "punished." Talk about a subjective response! THEY are not being punished-- their WORK and their UNDERSTANDING are being assessed -- and here's the kicker--so that improvement can be made.
For instance, student A performs at an acceptable level throughout the semester. A's work is not outstanding, but it is acceptable, although A is capable of outstanding work. When the teacher conferences with A about A's demonstrated performance periodically, the teacher suggests various strategies and skills that the student could avail herself of in order to raise her mastery of the information/skill-- and therefore, her assessed grade. Student A does none of these things-- but at the end of the semester claims that she is being punished by not being "given" an outstanding mark. The words in quotation marks are all a part of the cant that is used to imply that grades are not the result of assessment but are merely punishments generated external to any actions or behaviors on the part of the student.
I see this far too much, sadly. I unfortunately hear a lot of this same kind of reasoning of those who think that any time a student doesn't get the grade they "want," they are being "punished." Punishment in this instance is of course used in an extremely pejorative sense. This kind of displacement of responsibility serves no one in our society, but most especially it does a disservice to our students. In this line of reasoning, grades are "given" to them or they "happen," rather than being an assessment that has been earned and produced and demonstrated by the students themselves.
Students, parents, and administrators all too often focus on the "grade" but ignore the learning --or lack thereof --that that grade is meant to assess, and forget that the purpose of that assessment is to provide the opportunity to improve learning and therefore performance and skill level-- oh, and, correspondingly, of the grade. They are now abdicating their responsibility in the learning process-- and what a horrible idea to implant in our students' minds! Just like most of Western society, there is a logical consequence to this line of faulty reasoning--those who believe this don't want honesty, they want manipulation. They don't want to improve their understanding or skill acquisition, they simply want an empty credential. Students "want" grades, but earning them? Far more difficult. Students "want" to graduate, but earning that? Far more difficult, as well. Let's be honest: the current discussion about drop-out rates in American schools usually talks about wanting everyone --EVERYONE-- to graduate, which is a far more simplistic goal than expecting that everyone who graduates should meet certain standards of knowledge. These are two far, far different things-- there's a canyon of difference between them. Could it be that exactly this kind of thinking is a very large part of the current crisis in American education regarding achievement and assessment and opportunity?
I am appalled some of this same kind of reasoning from education professionals who advocate changing the grading system so that refusal to complete assessments, or refusing to do them in a timely manner, or refusing to do one's own work, is thought of as an anomaly that just somehow "happens."
And although the discussion of grading per se has nothing to do with this point, let's return to an ethical consideration of what to do when confronted by these kinds of behavior. I wish to address the issue of age of accountability or maturity in determining consequences-- ANY consequences!-- for misbehavior. Let's consider character education, a trendy term that is batted around in far too cavalier a manner, in my opinion.
Granted, our students are --usually-- not adults (my high school, and most everyone's, does have a population of those who have reached legal majority, but that is another problem). But they are not infants, either, and they do need to take responsibility for their deliberate actions. This needs to be a gradual process beginning in their earliest years, even before they come to school. By the time someone is in middle school, they need to understand that there are some choices they have, that they are responsible for those choices. This is an empowering concept, not a punitive one!!!! It can, unfortunately, also lead to negative consequences when they choose unwisely. But the purpose of those consequences is to help the child make the better choice the next time they have the opportunity. This is also not "punishment." This is the way in which one learns to become a upright human being and citizen.
We do not "punish" students as we "punish" adults. Adults who cheat and steal (if we agree that we should not tolerate this behavior in the first place) receive consequences of fines, legal adjudications, and possibly jail time. And I wonder how many of those adults that do get caught cheating and stealing started out with cheating and stealing in school, and then being tacitly encouraged to roll the dice to try it again-- on the chance that a) they won't be caught most of the time (probably true, but irrelevant to our thought experiment here) and b) that they would receive no consequence to deter them from such self-destructive behavior?
By the way, since we are talking about grading, extra credit for anyone who takes the trouble to find out what the meaning is of the picture at the top of the post, and its application to our discussion. I'll post a congratulatory note identifying you in a revision to this post at the top, even!