Last Wednesday, The New York Times featured a story about the reasons students cheat at Stuyvesant High School. It used the word “rationale,” and the story included plenty of that: students cheat because they’ve lost faith in teachers’ fairness, they cheat because too much is at stake not to, they cheat because disinterest demands it, they cheat because collaborating with other students is much more efficient, they cheat because it brings sure returns. Any risk shrinks beside rewards—and no one gets in that much trouble.
Truthfully, I understand. Who hasn’t slogged through an obligatory class that saps your energy for classes you want to take? Who hasn’t met teachers who lift themselves up by putting you down? Who hasn’t heard a friend’s offer to help, a kindness you can’t reject? Who hasn’t been tempted by an invitation to escape or by the lure of another, more pleasant task or by sleep?
These inducements to cheat are and have always been part of schools’ landscapes, as sure a part of education as trees in the forest. The Times account—and the cheating scandal at Harvard—illustrate moral relativism, and that is nothing new. More severe punishment might curb cheating, but, otherwise, schools can do little to change deeply embedded motives to cheat.
What worries me more than relativism is students’ bold-face defense of their actions, their fundamental cynicism about education’s value, their inflated expectations of what they’re owed, and their rejection of the idea that school is supposed to be hard.
To me, a school that isn’t challenging isn’t a school at all.
Many students serve absent masters, and those students sit in classrooms because they’re made to by teachers barely esteemed in society and by perceptions of parents’ aspirations and by hopes of gaining the attention of colleges and graduate schools they haven’t met yet and by the general expectation that school must be hurdled, borne, withstood.
When I ask a class who they are there for, some students will say “Me,” but just as many will wait dumbfounded for the correct response. I tell them school isn’t about me or parents or colleges but about them, and every ounce of effort they put into learning brings a 100% return. Every time they fight through a problem or essay, I say, they diminish their future struggles and build a bigger sense of what they can do. And, yes, school can be fun if you see it that way. Those comments reach a few students because they know—to be an athlete, actor, musician, or artist you must practice. But some students are more problematic.
Once I met the brother of a former student, and we started talking about his English teacher at another school. He was complaining—as students will—about his teacher’s qualifications. His class was studying The Great Gatsby and his teacher “Hadn’t even brought up the green light!” He didn’t know that the teacher he criticized was my friend, the brother-in-law of one of my best friends. I knew his teacher well and suspected he simply passed the green light by because it was one of the easiest targets for readers—well explored by Cliffs Notes and the like—and wanted to dig deeper in fresher territory. He probably wanted the students to test themselves and do new work.
I tell this story not to illuminate how little it takes for students to dismiss their teachers or to vilify my former student’s brother or to defend my friend. I mean to illustrate the commodification of education. The student already knew what product he sought and what end he expected in return for payment in effort or dollars. He was an informed consumer—like Harvard and Stuyvesant students, my former student’s brother was a very smart person—and arrived presuming he’d be given what he wanted so he could move on.
Okay, exploding this one anecdote to indict all students is ridiculous, and I teach many students who go to school to confront what they don’t know and gain skills and understanding that will improve their lives instead of their future prospects. Yet, this story isn’t unique. I’m sometimes shocked by the virulence of students’ resentment when they’re not given what they’ve expected or been promised when, really, all they’ve been promised is that the territory ahead will be new, unknown, and—dare I say it—thrilling.
I don’t like myself much when I talk this way. Stridency isn’t charming, and someone out there may accuse me of resentment and condescension toward students I’m supposed to support and love. Maybe I deserve it. I may be tired. I may also expect more than I have a right to expect. My only defense is that I do love my students and that’s why I want them to struggle.