Today's topic over at the Atlantic is cheating. Why students cheat, and how teachers can prevent it according to a new book Cheating Lessons, by James Lang. You can access the article here.
A couple of hours after the article at the Atlantic went live, the following email landed in my inbox. I was overwhelmed by this student's honesty and asked him if I could reprint his letter here as long as I remove any identifying details. And yes, I did my due diligence. He is who he says he is, and he did the things and was given the honors he claims in the letter. So here goes; I'm curious what other educators think about his confessions and his thought process.
My name is [name withheld] and I am a freshman at [name withheld], and I read your article in the Atlantic, "A Classroom Where No One Cheats." This article caught my attention because too rarely do I see liberated educators brave enough to internalize the malady of academic dishonesty as a product of their classroom, rather than a social pathogen threatening them. I'm majoring in sociology and communications with a minor in education, and I've been involved in student advocacy and education policy since my sophomore year of high school, but that's not why I've decided to contact you.
I'm contacting you because I cheated all throughout high school. Not only that, but I graduated as a valedictorian, National AP Scholar, Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, and I was accepted into the honors program at [name withheld]. To most educators, my true story is a disgrace to the system; I'm the one who got away. Now, I was talented enough in my cheating to be mostly hailed as one of the smartest and most ambitious students in my graduating class. But the one time I was caught cast a chilling shadow over my school, a shadow that briefly illuminated the overwhelming extent of cheating in my school, a shadow that no educator was then willing to confront. I have thought about that episode literally every day since it happened, and from those thoughts I have come to terms with my philosophy on cheating and how that fits into my greater perspective on education.
It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms.
While most of my fellow cheaters, with whom I often colluded, may not have philosophized their cheating as deeply as I have, they intuitively followed the same reasoning. They knew that the classes they were attending were largely not adequately teaching them. And most of them went on to attend prestigious universities, majoring in the very fields they shamelessly cheated through in high school.
This message is largely for my own good, to finally externalize these thoughts for another human being. But if you would like to investigate further this idea of principled cheating, as I call it, I would love to assist you with your journalism.
Thank you for reading.
Update: After I posted this, James Lang, author of Cheating Lessons, posted something about the student's letter on his own blog, which you can read here. The comments are piling up on my Facebook page, and I will tuck those down at the bottom of this post.
The debate over on my Facebook page: