Saturday, September 15, 2007


The San Francisco Chronicle has a long article about cheating.

"It's not the dumb kids who cheat," one Bay Area prep school student told me. "It's the kids with a 4.6 grade-point average who are under so much pressure to keep their grades up and get into the best colleges. They're the ones who are smart enough to figure out how to cheat without getting caught."

There's so much wrong with that kid's thought processes that I have a difficult time knowing where to begin. I guess I'll start here: if you think you're going to do well at Stanford if you have to cheat to get in, you're probably not smart enough to go there in the first place. And if you think you're too good for UC Davis instead of UC Berkeley, who the heck wants you around, anyway?

I know cheating is rampant, even at my school. I remarked to my 6th period yesterday how "amazed" I was that their quiz grades overall were so much better than my other two pre-calc classes, both of which are before lunch.

I cheated in high school, and I'm not proud of it, but let me explain how I did it. Our physics teacher had tunnel vision, and not the greatest vision, either. He had two versions of each test, and odd numbered test and an even-numbered. Our rows were lateral, so the people on either side of you had different tests than you had.

Three of us who were pretty bright sat in the back row. We would each do our own tests, then swap tests and do the other version! Then, keeping in mind the teacher's tunnel vision, we would compare work to see who had the correct answers! When we agreed on the answers to both versions of the test, then we could pass those answers to others.

Let me restate that: in order to cheat, I had to take two tests in a class period where everyone else only had to take one.

It's not something I'm necessarily proud of, but at least I actually had to know the physics, and know it well, in order to cheat. I did find that cheating for myself often required enough work and risk that it was at least as easy to learn the material on my own. I didn't have to cheat because I didn't know the material--I did extremely well in school. If I was going to cheat for myself, it would be to save time--and often it took less time, and it was certainly less risky, just to learn the material on my own. And if you had to chat on this quiz, you'd have to learn it before the chapter test anyway (unless you planned on cheating there, too).

We didn't have AP classes at my school--no college credits, no inflated GPAs, and no belief that we were entitled to go only to the "best" universities, however "best" is defined. This entitlement complex is out of hand, and it's parents, my own generation, who are responsible. If you allow your kids to think that they're disappointing you if they go to Sac State instead of UCLA, then you, parents, own a large share of the problem.

But students, you know right from wrong. I did, too, and I regret my cheating. I'm glad that West Point instilled in me a greater sense of values than that which I already possessed, and I'm proud of what I accomplished at West Point without cheating. Besides, if you try to justify what you're doing by saying "everyone does it", you're helping drive the arms race that you're stuck in.

You really need to look at the bigger picture.

I don't expect to change anyone's mind with this post, but you know I'm right. And I want that thought to haunt you as you make your Faustian bargains to get into Stanford.


Anonymous said...

"if you think you're going to do well at Stanford if you have to cheat to get in, you're probably not smart enough to go there in the first place"

That doesn't follow at all from what you quoted.

Thousands of excellent students are rejected by Stanford every year, and it's not because they're not smart enough. It's because there are simply too many people competing for too few spots in each incoming class.

What this student is saying is that it's the top students - meaning the ones who have already earned high GPAs and perfect SAT scores by working for them - who start cheating under the pressure to stay on top so that they can compete with all the other top students who will be applying to the same colleges (and who may or may not be cheating).

"And if you think you're too good for UC Davis instead of UC Berkeley, who the heck wants you around, anyway?"

I doubt they think this way. It's more likely, as you suggest further down, that they know their parents don't think UC Davis is good enough and they're afraid of what will be seen as failure.

I'm not defending cheating. But it's easy to be Mr. High-Minded Former Cheater when you no longer have as much at stake as these kids. The world is much more competitive now - so at the very least, we can conclude that you had far less excuse for cheating back in the day than they do now.

Darren said...

I don't think we can conclude that. Generally, I wasn't cheating for myself. Still not a good excuse for doing what I did, but there's less selfishness in it.

Foobarista said...

The problem is that if universities are about degrees and signaling versus "learning", than cheating is a rational, if unethical, response. And many universities are fairly easy to graduate from if you manage to get in.

David Foster said...

The pressures don't generally get any less when one graduates and goes to work. If the pressure of getting into Stanford leads someone to cheat, what about the pressure to meet the monthly revenue quota or the quarterly net income target? The consequences for cheating on these matters can include very long prison sentences.

It's a very dangrous habit to get into.

Anonymous said...

And the signaling problem is precisely why grade inflation is a curse at top schools. Even if you're half a standard deviation below the mean at Stanford or Brown, my guess is that it pays to get in because you'll get through with at least a B average especially if you pick your major carefully.

Contrast that to Caltech or MIT or Chicago, which have tougher core requirements and tougher grading. Allowing a weaker student to get in is often a curse, because he/she will just get killed in the core courses.