I have been following recent revelations of cheating at elite high schools and colleges with interest, in part because I attended one of the implicated high schools, and also because the psychology of cheating fascinates me, for personal reasons.
We all grew up hearing, "When you cheat, you only cheat yourself," which is untrue on so many levels. If you cheat on an exam, you harm everyone who didn't, especially if the exam is graded on a curve. And cheating yourself doesn't really enter into it — copying answers doesn't preclude you from grappling with the material, after all.
I speak from experience, as someone who survived third- and fourth-grade arithmetic by cheating. I didn't copy others' answers, though I can't claim I wouldn't have done so if given the chance. Instead, I became adept at secreting tiny copies of class examples in my clothing and surreptitiously pulling them out at key moments.
Why did I do this? Terror.
I was a fairly miserable child. My home life was not happy, and any affection I had been able to glean from my mother had evaporated when I was supplanted by a much-cuter little brother. My peers shunned me — wrong neighborhood, wrong ethnicity, wrong SES, wrong clothes, and, I guess, a general skulking attitude that was the consequence of feeling unloved and unaccepted.
My one asset, as I understood it, was that I was very, very smart. This was not an unmixed blessing — my mother and grandmother lamented, often and audibly, what a shame if was that the brains had gone to the girl
while the looks and personality went to the boy, and my desire to study was not supported. (All of this made my brother feel great, too, as you might imagine.) But being a highly verbal early reader earned me valuable points with teachers, which I drank up in lieu of mother love.
The problem was, I had a block against arithmetic. I could not internalize the multiplication tables, could not begin to fathom division. I truly don't know whether this was classic sexism-sparked math anxiety or simple slowness; I suspect the latter. Whatever it was, it was exacerbated by my anxiety that if I could not perform, I would lose my only avenue to affection and acceptance—and I would rather have died. I grappled with the material as best I could, but I knew I would fail miserably if I relied on myself alone, and I was too fearful to ask for help, so I addressed the problem in the only way I could think of.
I never got caught. One boy in my fourth-grade class was on to me and tried to alert the teacher, but she refused to believe that a superior student would do such a thing, and suggested he was motivated by envy, and he gave up.
Fortunately, my fifth-grade teacher had both X-ray vision and a compassionate heart. He discerned fairly quickly that my grasp of numbers was primitive, and offered me extra help while praising my essay writing and creative ability highly. Even more important, he expressed apparently genuine affection for every kid in the class, whiz kids and slow learners alike. It was the first time I felt that my likability was not tied to achievement.
I caught up that year, and continued to do all right until I hit calculus in high school, at which point I did enough extra credit work to earn a mercy C and never attempted anything so ambitious again. And I came to understand the moral implications of cheating, and worked hard to take responsibility for my own work and to ask for help when I needed it.
But that was after I had been given the gift of acceptance. Reading some of the students' reasons (all right, rationalizations) for cheating makes me think that many were never given this gift. They still feel their self-worth depends on their performance—acing tests, getting into the best schools, hopping the fast track to an impressive career.
I believe cheating is wrong and merits serious consequences. However, it might also be a good idea to turn down the heat a bit at these competitive schools; to help kids to achieve a sense of worth derived from other sources—from being a good person, a loyal friend, or just, as I learned in the fifth grade, from being. (Thank you, Mr, Gelman, wherever you are!)