Note: This article was originally written for our school’s newspaper by Noah Donnenberg. Due to space concerns and ideological differences, it was not printed. What follows is 2200 words on cheating, morality, and fraternity.
Central Catholic has a cheating problem. The first step in the road to recovery is admission, right? And that’s exactly what Central did in the middle states accreditation back in 2013. During that process, our school was subject to scrutiny by accreditors who asked the faculty what issues they had with school culture. The issue of cheating recurred throughout the staff’s commentary. The problem was this: there was no good way to report incidents of cheating that resulted in any usable information about school culture. This is to say that up until the 2013-2014 school year the only way for teachers to report an incident of cheating was to write the offense up in a note to the discipline office; a note that would most likely result in a school punishment (ie. a suspension or series of detentions, depending on the severity of the incident) and then be lost among the impossibly large body of infractions records. The school was unsure of what course of action to take, so it deferred to an outside consulting company. The consulting firm, along with the efforts of Central Catholic faculty settled on the creation of an academic integrity council. The model that the council follows is one where students who are deemed by teachers to be superior in areas of integrity and academic achievement, hear reports of cheating issued by faculty. They then make recommendations for a punishment to a selection of faculty members, who then administer that punishment. This model was taken from comparable catholic universities, and elite college prep schools. So why the honors council? Central faculty member Brother Kevin Dalmasse responded in an interview that “[the academic integrity council] brings morality into the way cheating is dealt with.” This idea of the importance of morality in the way issues of cheating are handled ties into two narratives: that of the Teachers and that of the students.
Before we can get into these two narratives, we must understand that both are social contracts, which begs the question “why is a social contract a matter of morality?” The answer is simple according to some: Socrates and the 1600’s British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes felt that adherence to any social contract is pragmatic and, as Hobbes stated, is the compromise between humankind’s selfish and rational tendencies. Socrates provides his own example of this: he submits to execution because to do so is to honor the same social contract that allowed all of the good in his life, and in the lives of those around him, such as justice, marriage, and safety. By these viewpoints, we honor these types of agreements because they are in the collective best interest, but what happens when two directly conflict? This is the dilemma at the heart of this article. What is the conflict, what is being done, and what more can we do? Now we are equipped to see both social contracts and evaluate them in both a pragmatic and a moral light.
The Student/Teacher Social Contract
The student/teacher contract is really just my fancy word for school. Every student enters into it without any say or understanding as a kindergartener. The contract is complex and nuanced, but it reduces down to a few basic rules that keep everyone involved in line. These rules are as follows:
For the students:
Primarily, students are expected to be responsible for all material assigned and covered by the teacher. This means that whatever is taught is your business to know, or do, and when you don’t do it you are not breaching the contract at all but by the terms of the contract, will be held accountable.
Secondly, students are expected to put forth a body of work that reflects their understanding of their assigned material. This point is simple. Don’t cheat. The reason it exists is because in order to evaluate someone, you have to evaluate that person, and not some other person. This is essential to the contract because when it is breeched, a student’s evaluation does not accurately reflect his or her knowledge of the material.
For the Teachers: both parts of the contract have equally binding components:
First, teachers are expected to provide material that they, through their training and their adherence to the curriculum, feel is appropriate to the evaluation of their students. This means that teachers must use their resources at hand in order to supply material that both satisfies their curriculum, and is not unduly onerous for the students.
Secondarily, teachers are expected to evaluate students performance in a way that reflects the degree to which the student has mastered the material. If other factors are introduced, the contract is broken, because now the evaluation would reflect something other than that for which the students are responsible.
Several points follow: on the surface it appears completely morally neutral, and a fair evaluation promotes the most qualified individuals to be selected for the appropriate positions in society. It is the same here as in Socrates day, where, to bring things back to cheating, we should be academically honest, because it is through that contract that the system of qualification exists. This is straightforward and shows that when we cheat, we are violating the system that provides for our safety and prosperity. That’s a huge system that has immense implications. So where do matters get confusing and bring morality into an equation that is based upon a meritocracy that does not depend on morality? Morality comes with human teachers. When a student violates this contract, he or she is not only disrupting a core societal tenant, but he or she is also being personally offensive. Although it is my belief that the vast majority of incidents of academic dishonesty are committed without any intent of affecting the teacher, they can’t help but insult. To understand this, flip the equation around (because teachers can violate this contract too); when a teacher grades a student on more than his required school work (e.g. his demeanor, religion, accent ect.) the teacher is not only breaching the social contract, but acting in a way that is offensive to the student. In a less extreme way, when a teacher assigns work that is inappropriate to the class the social contract is similarly broken on nonmoral grounds. Simply said: when you cheat you not only break a core social contract, but you also break a heart.
But what about the social contract between students?
The Student/Student Social Contract
From this point on in the essay it is important to note that I am now writing strictly about my experiences and observations over my three years at Central Catholic (along with minimal input from my nine previous grade school years) but this will mostly be about Central. Here in our halls we have an unwritten, unspoken contract which one rapidly learns by example and to which the majority of students willingly consent. This agreement comes from the core of Central Catholic ideology, tradition, and ethics. The complication resulting from these high ideals a variety of academic dishonesty to which many of my fellow students can relate: allowing another student to copy one’s work. Before we go any further, I will outline the (only now written), and unspoken terms of the contract:
For both students:
We are all in this together. This means that we will have to complete the same assignments, and take the same tests. Our performance can fall short as individuals, or be augmented as a whole.
I’ll scratch your back, because I know how itchy backs can be. This is different from the usual “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” because ultimately it isn’t so much rooted in a pragmatic give and take system. It is more rooted in mercy and compassion for the short fallings of one’s fellow student. Students understand that they (some more than others) also have these shortcomings, and know how costly they can be, which leads to the next point…
The stakes are high, and lapses can be devastating. Many students who cheat are in one of two predicaments: they are struggling to pass a class, or they are students with the highest aspirations, in the most competitive classes. According to Brother Kevin Dalmase, most incidents of cheating come from the latter stratum, which plays into the social contract. Students know that a lapse in study will make them less academically competitive. This ties into the previous point, because other students in their peer group understand this, and are sympathetic to it.
I am sure most of the teachers reading this noticed something missing from that list: there is no mention of the very real fact that when someone copies one’s work, the individual who was copied from relinquishes an advantage he had over his fellow students. This is a miraculous phenomenon, considering how prominently competition for colleges, scholarships, and acclaim weigh in the students minds. In fact it is the drive to be academically attractive that plays a prominent role for why students cheat. So why would they ever willingly give up a hard earned piece of their own study, their own labor, to bail out a struggling peer? The answer is rooted deep in our school. Our camaraderie, our fraternity, is so deeply ingrained that we will make costly sacrifices for each other, because we feel that it is a competition between all of us collectively and all other students, than it is a competition between each other for colleges, scholarships, and acclaim. Perhaps this culture is why we do so well in athletics. This raises a very uncomfortable point: most of the cheating that occurs in our school is as much the child of altruism and compassion as it is the product of laziness and dishonesty. A discussion with an Oakland Catholic junior exemplifies the cheating culture of schools of similar prestige. “a lot of people [cheat] and tell some things and keep other things to themselves. [there is] definitely more sharing in CP (college prep.)” Unlike in Central, dishonestly acquired information is not shared publicly, especially in the more competitive classes.
There is another truth, however, which cannot be ignored; the pull of the fraternity. The problem with any strong brotherhood is there is always a disenfranchised group. Central Catholic is no exception. I spoke with a pair of class of ’14 graduates, who remembered the event where answers to physics tests were stolen and distributed among the class. According to them, the impetus for the incident was acceptance. The camaraderie is a double edged sword, because just as it enforces bonds between students, it also excludes students then turn to cheating as a mode of acceptance. This path to acceptance is one that can only exist in a tight knit environment where personal interactions mean everything. Central’s virtue is also its downfall twofold because not only do the accepted cheat largely because of it, but the outcast can also partake in acceptance through it. Although this type of cheating is not common, it is still a logical consequence of the situation at large.
So why we? Why Central, and what can we do? The unique social contract that governs cheating in our school is highly moral, and implements a sacrifice for the good of the community, but the social contract students have with their school is a nonmoral sacrifice for the overall good of the society. So how does one choose between conflicting social contracts if the effort is to cast cheating in a moral light? The issue becomes further obscured because this type of information sharing is the only method of cheating that could be viewed as moral. In fact, all other methods of cheating either involve sinister methods of taking advantage of another student (the kind of cheating more commonly found in other schools) or the act is rooted in blatant thievery of information for one’s own gain (e.g. stealing answers to a test, ripping pages from a student’s textbook.) These varieties of cheating make academic dishonesty an easy target of censure, and it is true that in some schools the issue is black and white. In ours it is not. The reason it is not is (and I am again speaking only from experience) the amount of sinister/thieving cheating is negligibly small. Our issue is with the competing social contracts. Well, what do we do? What we have already begun to do is implement a system where all forms of academic dishonesty are seen by a panel who punishes them all (albeit in different ways.) But is this the right way? My concern is that this method will slowly disincentivize cheating in general, which sounds ideal, but it will also just as surely chip away at the fraternity that we call Central Catholic. It is not to say the two are inseparable, and I am certainly not suggesting that cheating is in any way good. Academic dishonesty breeds laziness that will not suit anyone in later life; but the issue remains: is there any way to save what makes us so different, but change the way we depend on each other for school? As Socrates said “I am that gadfly… attached to the [school], and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” In the same way, I write not to answer questions, but to ask questions that demand an answer. So I turn to the readers, alumni, students and staff of our school which we all love? Is there any way to end the cheating but preserve that which makes us who we are?
— Noah Donnenberg ‘16