Why the Great Cheat

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The news that 125 Harvard students were under investigation for cheating on an exam came just days after we were informed that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles. In both of these cases, we have alleged wrongdoing by those at the top of their fields, and there is no reason to think that it was cheating that got them there. The Harvard students were admitted to our top university because of their hard work and scholarly achievement. Armstrong would have been a racing legend regardless. It is easy to understand why those who are not in the upper echelon might seek illicit advantage in order to get their shot at greatness, but why would the already great cheat?

To act in an ethical way requires two steps: first, you need to figure out what would be the right thing to do in your particular situation, and second, you need to actually do it. Usually, when we commit immoral acts, it is a failure of the second step. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we do it anyway.

Maybe it was expedient, maybe it got us something we really wanted or allowed us to hide some misdeed or embarrassing error, or perhaps it was peer pressure or rebellion. Usually, we are fully aware when we are doing something we shouldn’t and we try to hide it or rationalize it. Fewer are the times when we act wrongly by moral miscalculation, when we thought about how to behave and came up with the wrong answer. But that may be exactly what happened in these cases.

If what we value is out of whack, then so will be our decisions about what constitutes proper action. If we are driven solely by ends, if success and achievement are the only things to which we assign worth, then the means will seem unimportant by contrast.

In athletics, we celebrate winners. Sporting goods stores are full of t-shirts with sayings such as “Second place is the first loser” or “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Wheaties boxes are reserved for champions. The message is clear – it is not the training, practicing or competing, but the victory that is valued. The playing of the game is fleeting, quickly forgotten but for the highlight reel; it is only the win or the loss that becomes a thing in itself and lives on forever.

If sports were about the playing, then cheating would be not only wrong, but irrational — it destroys the entire reason for engaging in the sport. If a mountain climber’s goal is to say he stood at the peak of Kilimanjaro, then he could get there by helicopter and the climbing would become irrelevant. And if what we value changes from the doing to what has been done, then cheating becomes desirable.

What we see in sports is now being deeply embedded in the classroom. It is not the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, or insight, but rather the grade that is important. We are less interested in learning than in learning outcomes.

The switch is subtle, but critically important. If students love thinking and learning, then cheating cheats them of what they seek. There would be a disincentive to take short cuts.

But if process is trumped by outcomes in education, then cheating become rational. Add a competitive element in which there will be positive or negative consequences for having higher or lower marks and you develop a culture in which seeking any means to better scores becomes natural and normal, not only accepted but lauded. In this environment, the cheater is seen as “beating the system”, as having played the game better, not worse.

This may be what happened at Harvard. With standardized tests and concern about learning outcomes assessment, we have altered how we look at learning purportedly to help it improve. But what we have done is to sow the seeds of that which undermines it and leads to the destruction of what made it valuable in the first place.

Steve Gimbel is chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College.

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