I have been wanting to write about our less-than-honorable peers for a while now, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. Then, an interesting article came out last week in the San Jose Mercury News that talked about high school students cheating. The article only had statistics on a couple of schools, but I think it’s reasonable to assume the rates of cheating at those schools are broadly accurate. After all, I’ve never heard of one state or region being more honest than another. With rates as high as 70 to 80 percent at some of these schools, we can safely assume that this includes students who will go to college. After all, the biggest reason why the students in the article cheated was so they could get into college. The students who don’t cheat are probably doing worse than the students who do. These attitudes must carry over to the students who attend Stanford; if they didn’t, then why would people be cheating in class?
One thing you will probably find quickly, if you look outside of yourself, is the prevalence of questionable assistance on problem sets and assignments. Sometimes the cheating is blatant, like when students in a certain economics class sit next to each other and copy their answers straight off another’s homework. Not having to show work greatly simplifies the process of cheating, and the electronic submission allows them to submit it from their open computer without arousing suspicion from the professor at the front of the room.
Another way that students deceive professors is by doing secondary literature research, at times as simple as looking at Wikipedia, and then presenting the ideas gleaned from those sources as their own. Presumably, this makes them look more intelligent and insightful than anyone else, and the professor will therefore have a higher opinion of them, leading to more generous grading. After all, if the student always comes up with such great ideas, a less-than-stellar performance on a paper can just be attributed to a lack of time or some other such excuse.
But by cheating on problem sets with study groups, and cheating on tests by using phones and notes, these students raise the curve, hurting students who work alone and unaided. I don’t cheat and my GPA reflects that, but sometimes I wonder if I should, and this is why.
Upon graduation you are not a finished product. There are still schools that you must attend, on-the-job training that you must complete and mentors to guide you along the way. I don’t think what you learn in college actually matters unless you are doing something very technical. Even then, you will probably only learn the basics. The purpose of a college education seems to be to develop the process through which you learn. It is about forming friendships and working with colleagues. I am suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the cheating learned in school is essential to working the real world. You will form teams and groups to make products, and people will lie, cheat and steal their way to finishing. The process of being immoral in school simply prepares you to be immoral in the workplace.
You could argue that a workplace ethic that encourages stealing and lying to get ahead is wrong, as Greg Smith recently did in his op-ed in the New York Times. But if that is the sort of workplace that exists, then to be successful in it, we must do everything we can to get ready. There is another option of course, and that is to reject the cultural norm — not to cheat on exams and problem sets, and not pretend to come up with ideas that aren’t your own in section. We could blaze a new society in which being good means something. The problem we have is that when everyone is playing by the rules, breaking them leads to a huge payoff.
Sebastain welcomes your feedback. Send him an email at sjgould “at” stanford “dot” edu.