Mrs. Dronzek peered at down at me from her chair.
“Andrea, did you say 75?”
I hesitated, my heart pounding. Then I bit my lip, stared back at her, and nodded.
That was 1994: the year I first cheated. It was the second day of kindergarten. We were practicing counting, and Mrs. Dronzek had held a tower of giant Legos in front of the class and asked each of us to guess how many were in the tower. The person who guessed closest would win the coveted glitter-star pin to wear on her shirt all day for everyone to see.
I had watched with fire in my eyes as Mrs. Dronzek slowly counted up. 69…70…71…72…73…aaaaaand 74! That was when she asked me.
I had guessed 65. But that smarty-pants Caitlin has guessed 70. All I had to do was nod. Then victory – and the glitter-star pin – would be mine. So I nodded.
It’s strange how something so seemingly trivial can stay with us years later, refusing to be dislodged. The numbers, the faces – they are all cemented in my brain under a thick a layer of guilt. Just because I cheated.
It’s strange how something so seemingly trivial can stay with us, refusing to be dislodged. The numbers, the faces – they are all stuck in my brain, cemented in a layer of guilt. Just because I cheated.
Cheating is one of those dirty words we hate to be associated with. Yet I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t cheated at least once. Although, I suppose I could be wrong and I’m out here on Cheater Island all by myself (can you say ‘new reality TV show’?). In a moment of panic, cheating can suddenly seem like our only option.
However, even I, in all my Lego-fabricating glory, was pretty stunned at the type of cheating described in a recent article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The Shadow Scholar” describes the custom-essay writing business from the perspective of “Ed Dante,” a man who spent four years writing students’ essays – for a fee of course. In his account, Mr. Dante admits to writing everything from Ivy League admissions essays to PhD dissertations. Such achievements would be laudable (let’s face it: most of us won’t even write one dissertation) if they weren’t cheating.
And there is that word again: cheating. Its academic sinfulness eclipses all the other elements – the quality of Mr. Dante’s writing, the savvy business strategy, the psychological state that drives someone to pursue such a career (a topic that deserves its own dissertation). The very word is taboo on campus, as if the mere mention of it might cause us to catch whatever disease breeds a cheater. We do not discuss it or even acknowledge it, completely failing to scrutinize its presence in our midst.
Yet if “The Shadow Scholar” is any indication, scrutiny is exactly what is needed. Not, as Mr. Dante suggests, by teachers who fail to recognize their students’ lagging rhetoric, but by ourselves. We should pose the question, “Why do we so ardently avoid that hateful word – the Cheater?” Some might argue that we fear sullying our virgin ears with even a whisper of the word cheating. Some might argue that it is a most vile and depraved pursuit worthy only of intellectual sluggards, and thus should not be mentioned.
I argue those people are pricks. More likely, the thing that drives us to shun discussion isn’t our fear of cheating, but rather our fear of our capacity to cheat. Our fear that we do cheat and are cheaters, destined to be lumped in the same category as Mr. Dante’s clientele. If a six-year old can find cause to cheat, shouldn’t we as adults, with our far greater academic tribulations, be even more inclined to do so?
I’ve heard the argument that a child doesn’t fully recognize the immorality of her action and thus can be more easily forgiven. An adult, however, has no such excuse. But I knew what I was doing when I lied about those Legos. I knew it was wrong. I knew I was screwing Caitlin over. And I knew I wanted that glitter-star pin. The circumstances might be juvenile, but the intent was certainly not.
Of course, most of us have at least nominal control over our behavior and consequently cheating is not some compulsion. I do not fear the topic of cheating in a scenario such as Mr. Dante’s essay-writing service, where I can clearly distinguish cheating from not cheating. I have no worries that I might be compelled to seek out such a resource. Yet I do worry in those instances that are not so clear; for example, something as simple as working on a problem set individually versus in a group. Some classes condone – even encourage it – while others outright label it a breach of the honor code. Is it cheating? And if I Google “water pressure + cylinder + 5 kg,” when I solve my physics homework, is that cheating?
I start to get nervous in those instances and begin to avoid using the word “cheating,” for fear I might be doing so. I attempt to stifle questions like, if it was cheating, would I stop? These are the kind of thoughts I do not like to address, because they force me to consider my own propensity to cheat. They force me to scrutinize my own ethical code.
Now don’t run away just because I brought up the E-word. At Stanford, discussions of ethics are mainly restricted to the Philosophy Department and those pretentious 2 am conversations you had in your freshman dorm. We rarely pause to consider our own ethical codes. Whether that is due to lack of time or to a fear of what we may discover, I do not know. Regardless, ethical self-exploration begins by broaching those subjects we are most scared to address.
So ask yourself this: Am I a cheater? If you are like most of us, you probably responded, “Well it depends.” How do you define a cheater after all? Is it someone who cheats regularly? Has ever cheated? Cheats biweekly? Now I’m not Webster and I can’t answer that. But asking the question is the first step towards implementing that self-scrutiny that we so desperately need. Ask the question, even if you fear the answer. Ask the question, even if you don’t have an answer. And while I make no promises, chances are that if you are willing to ask yourself that question, you probably aren’t that terrible of a person. I’ll bet my glitter-star pin on it.