At Stuyvesant High School – New York City’s most elite – an astounding 71 students will have to retake their Regents exam after cheating. The scandal centered on 16-year-old Nayeem Ahsan who used a cell phone to send out photos of the exam. Ahsan, along with five other students, has been suspended.
This follows on the heels of other prominent cheating scandals. Twenty students were caught in a cheating scandal at Great Neck North High School in late 2011 when they attempted to pay others to take the SAT for them. Several arrests were made in the scandal since test-takers received between $500 and $3600 to fraudulently bubble in the answers.
The stats on cheating can be discouraging. The Benenson Strategy Group surveyed 7th-12th graders in 2009 and found that 35% admitted to cheating by cell phone during a test and 52% admitted to some form of cheating using the internet. Out of 12,000 high schoolers surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a whopping 74% admitted to cheating on an exam at some point in the past year to get ahead. According to National Public Radio, two-thirds of parents believe cheating is no big deal and that all students do it at some point.
Even educators are joining in. In Atlanta, a state investigation discovered 178 teachers and principals had tampered with tests over the past decade to improve their school’s performance.
New Yorkers were quick to weigh in on the cheating at Stuyvesant. Some argued it was a result of the pressure students feel because of testing. Others blamed an uneven application of a cell phone ban. Many attempted to exonerate the students by comparing their behavior to that found on Wall Street. Still, others felt it was an indictment of the education system which has failed to properly teach the students.
Last year the New York Times printed a discussion on the causes of cheating. Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, argued cheating “is a survival skill” for students in a high-pressure environment. Andrew Daines, a graduate of Cornell, argued students need ethics classes to provide a “philosophical grounding for goodness, honesty, and integrity.” While author Alfie Kohn claimed the problem is with classroom methods and the definition of cheating, saying, “By definition, cheating is a violation of the rules. Are those rules reasonable? Who devised them and who benefits from them?”
Ironically, no one is blaming the students or teachers who actually cheated.
When it comes to our sins we’re sure someone is ultimately to blame and we’re also pretty sure it isn’t us. The Bible acknowledges that our sins, such as cheating, can result from the actions of others. Jesus says in Mark 9:42, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Others may be partly to blame for the sins we commit.
Yet, the Bible never absolves the sinner simply because others may be involved. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” Yes, the pressure of succeeding makes cheating more appealing. Yes, new technologies make cheating easier. Yes, the failure of others to maintain high standards makes it easier to lower one’s own. Yes, the education system may not be meeting students’ needs. But it all comes down to the moment when a student decides to obtain and use illicit information to violate their integrity, beat the test, and receive ill-gotten rewards. They make the decision. They are ultimately to blame.
Why do it? Because they believe it doesn’t matter. Culture has taught them right and wrong are simply constructed by societies and individuals to suit their own ends. They don’t flow from the character of God. Thus, as long as they believe they’re not hurting anyone, there is nothing to lose. No one is keeping score and the ends justify the means. If they’re planning to be a doctor what will it matter if they cheated on a freshmen English course or a high school Spanish exam? If there is no God to give life a unifying meaning and purpose, they’re free to construct their own meaning and purpose in which right and wrong serve their own selfish desires.
A better question might be: why shouldn’t they cheat? If we are only animated pieces of meat, biological machines programmed by genetics and determined by our environment, spinning on an insignificant rock around a fiery star that will one day explode and wipe our pitiful race from the memory of the universe, there is no good reason not to cheat on a test so we can at least afford a bigger TV to watch sports on.
Students know how not to cheat. Some may unintentionally plagiarize, but no one accidentally downloads a copy of the test on their phone beforehand. They just aren’t sure why they shouldn’t.
If right and wrong are relative concepts, why bother with someone else’s definition of cheating when I’m not hurting anyone?
If I have no greater meaning in my life than what I make of it, why not employ cheating as a means to my personal goals?
Besides, I’m not to blame for my cheating. My brain chemistry made me do it. Or my stressful, high pressure environment full of bad role models.
The students are the ones who decide to cheat and are ultimately to blame for the scandals. Yet the world the culture has constructed for them gives them few reasons not to. As long as there is no God – or at least not one that is any more than a consumer product for our happiness – there is no unifying meaning and purpose to existence. As long as humans are merely products of their chemistry and environment, how can they be expected to behave any differently? If there is no God to give an account to and no soul of which to give account, he or she who has the most toys in the end truly wins even if they were earned by cheating.