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Sunday, September 9, 2012

American Culture and Integrity: Challenges and Considerations

My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Bayshore, used to say, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." To this day, if I am walking down a deserted hallway and see a piece of trash, I may start to walk past it; then I hear his voice saying, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." And I turn around, pick-up the trash, and throw it away. Thank you, Mr. Bayshore. I also remember someone else telling me that "Integrity is much easier kept than restored."

I point out these two vivid memories from my own childhood only because, if you have been following the news lately, you must surely have noticed a dramatic rise in the number of serious cases of cheating/plagiarism occurring across the country, even in the most high profile schools (e.g. Harvard, the Air Force Academy, and Stuyvesant High School). A recent NY Times article pointed out that studies are confirming that more students are cheating, and that cheating is become more pervasive by high-performing students as a way to get an advantage over other high-performing students.

While I am an educator, and I do have to deal with plagiarism, copying, and other forms of cheating occasionally, I find this article more disturbing as a citizen of the United States and a patriot. The ubiquity of dishonest behavior that lacks integrity in our country is a symptom, I think, of a much larger cultural issue. I've blogged before about corporate greed and a lack of integrity in financial systems and on the part of those who manage those financial systems, and how thoroughly un-American I believe that kind of behavior to be, but I think we're seeing an entire generation being raised with no moral compass, no sense of integrity. In the wake of all these cheating scandals at high-profile schools, some people will, no doubt, seek to lay blame for these incidents. But I think the blame game is too easy (because we are probably all to blame to some degree), and it distracts us from the real challenge: how to fix the situation.

I see what a group of greedy amoral individuals have done to the US economy (Bernie Madoff, the Enron scandal, sub-prime mortgages, derivative trading, the executive who was caught buying and smuggling into the US highly controlled cooling chemicals, etc.), and my real fear is that the up-and-coming generation of future leaders and workers are sunk in this mindset of "make more money at any cost". And that, as a country, our future looks more bleak than our past when it comes to a record of integrity and wisdom in economic and public affairs.

Howard Gardner has done extensive research on teenage and young-adult Americans, and with respect to this problem, his research offers some interesting insights. First, most teenagers and young-adults do not believe cheating/plagiarizing/copying is wrong; they understand that if they get caught, there may be negative consequences, but because most students who cheat never get caught, they consider the "reward" to be worth the risk. Second, many students believe that "everyone" is cheating, and that for them to keep up with the highest achievers, they must cheat and cheat alike; otherwise, they risk falling behind (this, by the way, is something that came up in a brilliant op-ed piece written by a former cyclist, Jonathan Vaughters, addressing the issue with doping in cycling).

The question is: how do we reframe an entire country's cultural skew so that achieving my personal goals is no longer more important than retaining my integrity? Essentially, this is the juncture we have reached as a country. Most individuals are willing to sacrifice both their personal integrity as well as the well-being of their fellow citizens for personal gain and benefit.

My one idea is that perhaps we should develop a nationwide class or curriculum on virtue/character that addresses what students should be learning and practicing in the realm of virtue/character at each grade-level. The biggest challenge I see to implementing something like this is that the best way to pass on these traits is to learn them from elders who possess them, but as fewer and fewer living people possess them, there will be fewer and fewer people having these traits passed on to them, and it becomes a decreasing cycle.

DISCLAIMER: I am not perfect, I make poor choices sometimes, and I live with the consequences. I have never cheated or plagiarized. In fact, if anything, I am acutely aware of how intellectually indebted I am to the giants who have come before me (one of the sources of inspiration for this blog), and I am often over-zealous in giving credit for ideas to others. I try to live a life of integrity, and know that I sometimes fail.


  1. I agree that cheating to advance in the grading system is harmful, but the students are hardly to blame, and a class on character I don't think is the answer. The problem is more systemic, and has to do with the idea of grading based on correctness rather than comprehension. I'm sure you'll agree, as we've had this discussion before. When so much pressure is put on achieving this arbitrary number called a grade and the way to reach it is simply to turn in a sheet of answers mindlessly scraped out of a textbook, who can blame a kid for cheating? This sort of brute memorization is closer to an "enhanced interrogation" technique than a learning experience?

    As to an assertion that this happened less frequently years ago, I would say it is not a decrease in ethics, it is a decrease in the threat of punishment, and an increasing exposure to different ways to learn that have revealed the flaws in our system. The old way doesn't cut it anymore for this new generation of kids who know better. Kids are naturally lazy and indifferent to knowledge (well, the majority anyway), they can grow up to be different based on their environment.

    This is just me spewing out a few ideas to an interesting post. I have no basis for these assertions, I will admit, other than my own eyes. But, as a student of this generation, I thought the true root of the problem wasn't addressed here. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Griff! Thanks for reading the blog and for sharing your thoughts. (And I'm glad you found the Latin website too!) A few quick responses:

      1) I completely agree with you that "school" as a system in the US is broken, and that our emphasis on high-stakes testing and "grades" have created a situation that rewards cheating and not getting caught. However, I disagree with your statement that the students are "hardly to blame". In fact, I think students are very much to blame for cheating, and while I agree that current US pedagogy and academic evaluation need to be overhauled, I think students need to own their end of this: no one is forcing them to cheat (not even the system); it is a choice some students are making.

      2) I think you may have a point about the decrease in the threat of punishment. But as for your comments about students being "naturally lazy and indifferent to knowledge", I contest that our current academic system produces that in most students, not that that is a natural condition of childhood. I think if we changed our academic system, we could change students' attitudes toward knowledge and "work".

      Thanks for your thoughts, and for following the blog!

  2. Also, I realize that this doesn't respond to the cultural decline, but only a small portion of the article. I extrapolated, however, that this defficiency in ethics stemmed directly from one's education. I heartily believe that if one is taught in school that truth and the pursuit thereof is the path to advancement, rather than meaningless "progress", one is more likely to hold this as a value. I know discussions with you and Dick Hague certainly made me realize this. I don't think that these two problems stem from the same root, (cheating in school, cheating in life) but that they are rungs on the same ladder. If we knock society off the first rung, they'll likely never reach the second.