Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Cheating at Stuyvesant High: Take 2

In the wake of a Stuyvesant High School cheating scandal in June, involving 70 students, comes a shocking recent New York Times report that reveals an astonishing underlying “pathology” of academic dishonesty at the school. Students unabashedly describe unflattering breeches of ethics and even exhibit an extravagant sense of entitlement to such behavior:

“It’s like, I keep my integrity and fail this test -– no,” a senior actually says, “No one wants to fail a test.” The latter remark is indeed true. But this very student seems unaware that there is an obvious alternative to cheating in order to pass a test -- one studies for it. Yet this very same student says studying for the test is “a waste of time.” So what does he expect? Well, he expects to cheat.

A recent alumnus blames his actions on a French teacher he says he “had lost all respect for.” The teacher taught him nothing, he claimed, taking a passive approach to learning (and so missing out on the benefits of acquiring another language). When other students were openly discussing the answers on a test, he says, “Should I not listen?”

Obviously, these students are not of the mind of Sophocles, who had said, “I would prefer to fail with honor than win by cheating.” More likely, they are apt to dismiss the great philosopher as a fool.

Instead, it looks like the tired “everyone does it” excuse has become the mantra at this most elite New York City public school: The school newspaper, The Spectator, revealed in March that 80 percent of students in a survey of 2045 students were not embarassed to admit that they cheat.

Students who spoke to the Times on the condition that their names not be used, detailed how take-home exams (that used to depend on trust and individual effort) have now become a collaborative group endeavor. They also spoke of copying homework, not to mention detailing other methods of cheating they used.

Students rationalized such behavior as a choice between keeping their integrity versus getting onto their dream college:“The only way you could have gotten there,” a recent graduate said, “is to kind of botch your ethics.”

The ringleader of the initial June cheating scandal, Nayeem Ahsan, had explained to New York Magazine that he used his cell phone to send answers to several classmates on one Regents exam, in order to get help on two others.

Such revelations are a pretty bad indictment of the values that predominate at the school. After all, it was our own Teddy Roosevelt who said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

And what do such values say they about student success in future life and work endeavors, not to mention their success in the competitive colleges they aspire to? (And indeed in the wake of this scandal, comes one at Harvard, where a take-home exam turned into a dishonest collaboration.)

Also damaging to the school’s reputation are its teachers who are described by students as being “understanding” and complicit in unethical student behavior by not following policies. A student caught cheating on a math test with a sheet for formulas, for example, was not reported because she had been accepted into an Ivy League school.

One wonders if it is the teachers or the students who are running this school. One would have thought that this top city school’s mission would have been to instill those very ethical values its students see as unnecessary. Amid such revelations as those detailed above and an investigation by the Department of Education that resulted in suspensions for up to 10 days for the students involved, it is no wonder that the school principal resigned.

The new school principal has announced some changes intended to restore the school’s tarnished reputation: The cell phone ban is being enforced. Students now have to review and sign an honor code. Teachers are directed to talk about academic dishonesty. (And interestingly, one of Harvard’s responses to its own mass cheating episode was also a possible plan to require classes on what constitutes cheating.)

Yes, one would like to think the grown-ups are in charge now.

But these “new” policies pose an obvious problem. These capable students already know that the behaviors they are engaging in are wrong. So will an honor code make any difference? How is one to to believe that these students will really care about integrity?

Much more likely, it seems, they will continue in their “do-anything-as-long-as-you-can-get-away- with-it” ethos.

Not surprisingly, there appears to be no surfeit of student scruples: Rather than accept responsibility for bad behavior, a student had sued the school about a suspension that will appear on her student record, claiming that the school is damaging her chances of getting into an elite college.

It is somewhat reassuring to hear that as of the latest update, the student lost her case.
     (c)Oya Thompson


  1. This trend is very disturbing but to be expected when a federal court said it is okay to lie about your military record and right to wear medals not earned because a lie falls under "free speech!"

  2. First, Olya, excellent work in putting this together. It speaks LOUDLY of something called 'radical capitalism'(RC), being glued, as it is, to our culture's current problems in defining Success.

    Images of succeeding in Life, emblazoned in constant, dizzying arrays of advertising, encourage a person to do "Whatever It Takes" (in going thru the traditional homes/schools/jobs loop)to obtain happiness--a.k.a, Wealth. It's an elusive term; our lives are lived in oftentimes quiet frenzy in searching for it.

    Pursuit of wealth, of course, is culturally driven. Commercial interests now dominate our thinking and make it more important. Traditional moral counterweights that once balanced society--held by liberal church and civic institutions, i.e.--slipped in value over 30 years ago when New Right Republicans successfully married religion to politics.

    The Moral Majority and the 1980 elections point to this. With Sunbelt opportunism checked by rising fuel costs, it was practically an overthrow of the nation's liberal ethos by angry right-wing economic interests--who did it by conning evangelicals at the polls for a new path of economic stewardship.

    Young people are easily recruited (to further feed this campaign) because they are so susceptible to ideas of success. Chalk them up not then as traditional cheaters, but instead as new citizens-to-be in this new culture they're inheriting.

    The pressures are intense upon them to succeed--while increased spending in the old shallow methods of wild sex, meaningless fun and games are the new norms.'Get it,whatever way' is the implicit message. When is there time then to seriously study and learn? And to be responsible? "Why do they cheat?" people are asking.

    There's no apparent political will to alter the frequencies, the methods, nor the substance of the advertising either, of course. Consumer buying feeds the markets, which collectively make up our economy--the economic foundation that supports us. 'Hands off!' has become our new Catch-22, maybe you can call it.

    It's also something to consider for this upcoming election, maybe.

    Sorry for being so long with this. Again, congratulations on a good post.

  3. Thank you, Dan Bodine, for your very thoughtful and kind comments. Yes, it is sad that the pursuit of wealth has displaced moral values in our society. Perhaps you would like to sign in and follow my posts.