Thursday, December 12, 2013

True Confessions

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.

Ms. Lahey,

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:


  1. I always that that grading was a human rights violation. We should not be ranking kids. (judge not, lest ye be judged) The tests should define what was learned, and not learned, so what was missing can be taught. Instead, tests make a guidepost that we pass through on the road to somewhere else, as if there is an urgency to growing up, and the missing information is never made up. The person who wrote the letter has a good sense that adults are failing the children, and worked around their limitations, but I am not sure such duplicity can ever be justified.

  2. "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,"

    So the only thing that this student is saying is that she cheated because the class wasn't up to her expectations? Self-serving, consumerist nonsense. What's she going to do in later life, cheat every time that she doesn't get what she thinks she deserves?

  3. I felt cheated of the education I deserved.
    Entitled little brat. Blah, blah, blah. She cheated because she couldn't follow the curriculum because it wasn't taught to her snotty expectations.
    Good luck to her in life. I hope she doesn't cheat on her taxes.

  4. I will, however, retain hope that this student learns a lesson from this experience: cheating is never justified, and learning is the best prize life has to offer. We are never too old or too brilliant to learn something vitally important.

  5. Rationalization, justification and denial are just a few of the words that come to mind as I read this true confession.... But what about the kids that didn't cheat and were possibly passed over for AP or perhaps a scholarship?!! This person is obviously still thumbing their nose at the educational system while still reaping the rewards of being a cheater...and not caring who was displaced in their effort to "excel" (cheat). I say: OUT THEM, for their own sake: otherwise they might just grow up to be a politician!
    Much has been learned by failure, by many...someone just wrote a book on it, if I am not mistaken.... :-)

  6. She has not screwed the system; she has collaborated with the system, and screwed her fellow students who didn't cheat. And what the heck does "learning on my own terms" even mean? that's an easy claim to make since she didn't submit what she supposedly really learned to examination?

    1. Thank you. This is the smartest articulation I have read of what is wrong with what she did. She collaborated with the system and screwed her fellow students who didn't cheat.
      In most atrocities perpetrated in history, there were collaborators. They may have been ideological sympathizers, but usually they just wanted to survive or to get their own needs and interests met. The sad thing is that if a person has no transcendent values and doesn't care about virtue only about success, this is what they will do. I shudder to think what role this student would have played in a concentration camp, in Stalin's regime, etc. I wonder, and I hope she herself wonders, what are her boundaries. What would she not do to get ahead?
      A few points for those of us who are educators:
      1. The victims of her unethical behavior are invisible to her. She does not mention other students in her school except to say they agreed with her that the teachers were inept. But even if they wanted to, who would stand up to someone who ignores ethical boundaries in order to get ahead? Our job would be to clarify who the victims are in order to make the ethical dilemma clear to students.
      2. The school system is not run by evil dictators. She does not feel repugnance, only disdain. She may have been 'involved in student advocacy and educational policy,' but she fails to see that the problem is not individual bad teachers but a system that creates scarce resources and turns education into a game of musical chairs. Our educational job, frankly, is to help our students recognize this in order to navigate the ethical dilemma.
      3. The tragedy is that the stakes, in fact, were pretty low. In the worst case scenario, she would not have gotten into an honors program at a prestigious university; she would have had to get into graduate school on the merit of the quality of her undergraduate work that she would have to work hard to demonstrate; and she would have had to take out student loans to pay for her education. If she can excel on her AP exams and she is smart enough to write the piece she wrote, she will be able to rise to the top legitimately even at a regular state college, perhaps transfer in junior year to a more prestigious program, prove her excellence to her professors by excellent performance and out-of-class initiative on research projects and so forth. At the end of the day, she'd be able to become the doctor or lawyer (or heaven forbid, educator - note her minor!) or scientist, get a great job, and retain her soul. As educators, we need to remind students that the short term competition is not as life-defining as it seems.

  7. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..."
    A quick visit to a Confessional booth could have done the same thing for you.
    Indeed the pedagogy of those 'atrocious' classes may be suspect, but until one can observe it or review it (assignments, tests, activities, etc.) we cannot corroborate her claims. Maybe the teachers lacked passion for their content or commitment to their students, which led her to 'cheat' for the grade she felt she deserved. Or those other classes weren't important enough to her but required to get into the college she wanted so she decided to cheat in those but be 'honest' about the others; this sounds like a 13-14 year old who says, "I didn't do my math homework because I had a project due on Monday."

    Will she do the same thing in college? Will she decide as a professional that her compensation "does not reflect her worth or value," thus will cheat her way to better compensation? The top part of my brain understands her reasoning, but the depths of my grey matter are not comfortable with her actions at all, and will never be satisfied without understanding what really happened in those 'atrocious' classes, or having an eye-to-eye talk with this person.