Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cheating The System

Does the end justify the means, or does the means determines the end? That is our question tonight as we ponder the cheating scandal at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City.

Of course, all of us who have been through elementary philosophy courses know that the means determines the end. It is funny; we were just discussing this in one of my classes today while reading William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus wants to murder Caesar because he feels his ambition will cause the destruction of Rome. Murder for the good of Rome? I do not see how this could ever turn out well and it doesn’t.

Therefore, this situation at Harvard-Westlake should not turn out positive for the students involved. I am glad the administration at the school took decisive action and expelled six sophomores and suspended a dozen others. A strong statement needs to be made against cheating as well as plagiarism and other forms of intellectual theft.

But who is to blame for these students’ behavior? Do they come from families that teach such immoral acts as acceptable methods to get what one wants? Are the teachers at fault for leaving the tests out where students could access them by causing a distraction? Harvard-Westlake is a wealthy school drawing the top students in the city. Do students of privilege think this shortcut of cheating is somehow owed to them?

Our society encourages kids to get the result. The method is unimportant. These kids see the corruption all around them. Politicians take money from special interest groups. Parents follow less than moral business practices. Even teachers are not immune to bribery and conflict of interest.

The outcome is now more important than the process. No one cares how these kids operate day to day; the only concern is, did they get into the college of their choice? Parents compare notes. Where is your kid going? Some of my seniors are frantically waiting for their letters from colleges. Should they fail to get in, they will immediately appeal. Why? They are in competition with each other.

We put tremendous pressure on these kids to achieve at all costs. We demand As from them, and nothing else matters. Even in sports, parents pressure coaches to play their kids, and fights and threats have resulted when these adults do not get their way.

In a private school such as Harvard-Westlake, I wonder how much favoritism goes on. I remember clearly at my private high school just up the street from the Harvard-Westlake campus, certain students whose parents had more money than everyone else, or held positions in the community or in business, were often given preference. We had actors’ kids in my school. At least one was a full blown alcoholic with a variety of beverages stashed in his locker. Still, it took several violations and infractions before he was expelled. Dad would just come down to the school from the set and write a check. All would be forgiven. Every student knew this, and realized this was not moral behavior on the part of the school. I have not worked at Harvard-Westlake, nor do I know any teachers who work there, but if there was not at least some of this biased behavior going on, they would be the first private school I have ever heard of that did not show some preference for well-heeled students.

We see how celebrities are treated, how many chances they receive when they break the law. We know that checking into rehab is now the excuse for everything from drug addiction to racism.

For some crazy reason, Americans think they are somehow above the law, that the rules do not apply, that “do-overs” are automatic.

At my school, I am regularly asked by parents and students, after the quarter or semester has ended, if there is any “extra credit” a student can do that will repair a low grade. This is after the report card has already been issued.

One of the teachers in my department came to me with a child’s essay. The student wrote a draft which the teacher graded. Unfortunately, the grade was low. The child met with the teacher and they reviewed the draft. He was then sent home to rewrite the paper. When he turned in his final draft, the teacher found the first draft covered in the mother’s handwriting. She had rewritten every line; the child had simply copied her text in a new draft. When the teacher confronted the parent, the mother said she did not understand what all the fuss was about. These are the actions that teach are children that cutting corners is appropriate, or even expected.

Cheating is a fact of life in the classroom. Students are learning about life. They are trying out behaviors, and not all of them will be honorable. That is why a teacher must stay vigilant and when a student behaves immorally, offer a quick remedy and punishment. Parents should be counted on to support this moral education in the classroom, and follow through with proper moral behavior at home.

At a dinner party one night, I heard an acquaintance bemoaning the failing grades his child was receiving at school. In full hearing of the kid, he told the table that he cheated all through school. He could not understand why his kid was so inept that she could not pull this off. He was not, in the least embarrassed by his own admission. When I ran into him a few weeks later, he told me he had discovered a sure-fire solution. He had hired a “tutor,” a college student, to do all of his middle school daughter’s work for her. Now she was getting As, and as far as he was concerned, the problem was solved.

And we wonder why our children cheat?