As a high school student in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I was a mediocre math student. Somehow I excelled at geometry but I struggled with algebra, and my grades rarely rose above C+. I could have done better if, like some of my classmates, I cheated routinely on my homework. Our teacher, Doc Arnds, a short, gray-haired man with a bow tie, reviewed the answers in class every day before we handed in our homework. Nothing but our sense of personal integrity prevented us from changing our answers to get a better grade. I rarely did. But I do confess: I was honest but not a saint. If I’d made a careless mistake but had otherwise grasped the concepts, I did change an answer on rare occasion. With so many others cheating, it was hard to resist. The chiseling was so routine that my classmates had a euphemism for it — “quick penciling.”
At the time, I marveled that Doc Arnds would let the kids get away with it. Surely he could tell what was taking place right in front of him. To this day, I don’t know if he took quiet retribution against the worst malefactors. Maybe he did and we never heard of it. Maybe he tried, but wealthy, powerful parents squatted on him. Maybe he gave up trying, figuring that cheaters’ dishonesty would catch up with them eventually — cheaters never prosper. I don’t know.
What I do know is that society has always had cheaters. Always. In their discussion of how social behavior arose among humans, evolutionary biologists theorize about the impulse to altruism, and the impulse for cheaters to free-ride on that altruism, and the impulse of society to generate outrage against free-riders when they are exposed. Cheating is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that it has never been extinguished.
I also know that cheating is more prevalent than it used to be. While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, between 75% and 98% surveyed reported having cheated in the 1990s, according to a fact sheet published in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service published in 1999. Frequent cheaters feel justified in their practice. They see others cheat and think they will be unfairly disadvantaged if they don’t. A big reason for the ubiquity of whatever passes for quick penciling in the era of school laptops, I suspect, is that cheating no longer inspires the same outrage that it once did. Honor is deemed an antiquarian concept. Situational ethics prevail. Expulsion for cheating is decried as too harsh.
Against that backdrop, I hope readers have been following the posts in Bacon’s Rebellion by Robert Maronic, a former Latin teacher with Roanoke County Public Schools, and John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, on the subject of widespread cheating in Roanoke County schools.
The fact of widespread cheating is disturbing in its own right. Even more worrisome is the indifference of local and state education authorities to the phenomenon. No public official would ever condone cheating, of course. But no one in Virginia seems to be moved to do anything about it.
Virginia Department of Education officials say preventing cheating is the responsibility of local school boards and superintendents. But when Maronic took his concerns to his local school board and the board of supervisors, he got the brush-off. No one wanted to deal with the problem.
I cannot imagine that the problem is restricted to Roanoke County. To the contrary, the evil affects every school system to a greater or lesser degree. Cheating has become so endemic that it would take immense political will to extinguish. Administrators would face inevitable pushback. Affluent white parents, wanting no blemish on the academic record of their little darlings, would raise hell. Poor minority parents, already aggrieved by perceived institutional racism, would cry discrimination. And everyone would have an excuse — why pick on my kid when everyone is doing it?
I understand why school officials might quail before the task. Clamping down on cheating would be a difficult job. But there is no under-estimating the corrosive effects of widespread dishonesty. American society is built upon trust. If that trust disintegrates, we descend into every-man-for-himself hell-hole. So, in my mind, school cheating is a big deal, the toleration of it is a scandal, and citizens who care about the future of this Commonwealth should express their outrage. Cheating must end, or heads must roll!