Cheating in a Zero-Sum Game

If you read the news, it seems as if there’s a cheating epidemic in our schools. Of course, the big headline grabber is the ongoing scandal at Harvard, where more than 100 students (and some graduates) are accused of academic dishonesty. Over the weekend, however, I also noticed two articles in the New York Times which would seem to confirm the plague.

The first article addresses a case at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School that sounds eerily similar in some ways to the situation at Harvard. But it was the second article (“Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”) that really got me thinking about cheating as a systemic issue. It cites recent studies showing that “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree.” The article goes on to say that, according to researchers, “Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is tolerated.”

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, widely known among educators for his theory of multiple intelligences, is quoted as saying that students’ “ethical muscles have atrophied” over the last few decades. He sums up their supposed mindset as follows: “We want to famous and successful, we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them, and some day, when we’ve made it, we’ll be role models. But until then, give us a pass.”

The cynic in me wonders whether the recent scandals might actually indicate the emergence of a heretofore undiscovered “intelligence.” After all, these students are in many ways simply navigating the environment into which they have been placed, and they are doing so along the path of least resistance. There’s a certain logic in that, is there not?

One of the other experts quoted in the article seems to understand this… sort of. Professor Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers University, who is listed as “a leading researcher on cheating,” posits that “students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students.” He also charges that such behavior is “abetted by the adults around them.”

I think McCabe is basically right, but I suspect that the number of teachers who are guilty of such aiding and abetting is pretty small. On the other hand, I would argue that the number of teachers who drive their students to cheat is substantial. We hear increasing talk of “gamification” in education these days, as if that’s some cutting edge idea. I hate to break the “gamification” crowd, though: school was “gamified” a long time ago. The students who cheat, for better or worse, are simply playing the game.

While McCabe has some valid insights, his argument goes off the rails when he states flatly, “There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive. . . . But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.” I don’t know what his teaching load at Rutgers looks like, but I’m afraid he seriously misunderstands today’s students.

Based on what I hear on a regular basis, many students have somehow been led to believe that mere “survival” is tantamount to failure. From their perspective, in an increasingly competitive college admissions game, if you’re not “thriving,” you’re dead. And for college students facing an increasingly competitive job market, if you’re not thriving at that level, you might reasonably expect to spend your twenties sleeping on the sofa in Mom and Dad’s basement. To a twenty-something, that’s social death. So really, to them, “cheating to thrive” is an attempt to survive. The terms of the game–what it takes to “win”–have simply shifted.

In our heavily tracked education system, kids as early as preschool are labeled as high achievers and set apart from the rest of their classmates. They’re told—sometimes in explicit ways, sometimes not—that they are the best and the brightest. The world is their oyster, but the future rests on their shoulders. Because we expect so much from these students in particular, they are burdened with increasingly unrealistic workloads and a sometimes inhumane schedule as they progress through the system. Not wanting to let their parents and teachers down—and not wanting to admit to themselves or their peers that perhaps they aren’t superhuman—they naturally begin to look for shortcuts.

Part of Gardner’s comment is especially telling: “we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them.” Lose out to them? When did education become a zero-sum game? I’m not sure, but from the perspective of many students at least, it most definitely did, and “kids these days” are playing to win. Just like we taught them.

(Please allow me a slight digression here. Perhaps by cheating—especially en masse, as at Harvard and Stuyvesant—students are actually engaging in a subtle and perhaps subconscious form of protest against the system. By acting out a real-world game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, they change the game from one that is zero-sum to one that is cooperative. As anyone who has taken ECON101 knows, if both players in Prisoner’s Dilemma cheat, everybody wins! That’s collaboration, which we hail as one of the cornerstones of 21st century learning, even as we punish students for not “doing their own work.”)

In all seriousness, though, let me be clear here: I do not say any of this to excuse what these students may (or may not) have done. Cheating is wrong, and it cannot be condoned. To allow such actions to stand uncorrected weakens not only our academic standards, but the moral fiber of our very society. However, I do believe that when we face such widespread violations of the rules, we need to start asking some serious questions about the game being played. For instance:

  • Is it possible that these alleged incidents are not indicative of a moral failing on the part of America’s young people?
  • Is it possible that school, in its current form, might push students to cheat (and perhaps even reward them for it)?
  • Is it possible that adults—the teachers, the administrators, perhaps even the media types who cover this story—are primarily responsible for establishing the conditions under which cheating comes to be seen as “the path to victory?”

Although I have some thoughts on the matter (clearly), I’ll admit that I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I do think it’s a conversation worth having.


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