I Suppose The Good News Is That I Encountered The Problem Of Academic Apathy Regarding Cheating Decades Ago…And The Remedy Is Still The Same: Ethics

In “Dishonor Code: What Happens When Cheating Becomes the Norm?,” Suzy Weiss writes as if students taking advantage of loose standards and professorial sloth to cheat is a recent phenomenon. I can assure her (and her readers) that it’s not. The example she begins with brought back nasty memories for me.

When it was time for Sam Beyda, then a freshman at Columbia University, to take his Calculus I midterm, the professor told students they had 90 minutes. 

But the exam would be administered online. And even though every student was expected to take it alone, in their dorms or apartments or at the library, it wouldn’t be proctored. And they had 24 hours to turn it in.

“Anyone who hears that knows it’s a free-for-all,” Beyda told me. 

Beyda, an economics major, said students texted each other answers; looked up solutions on Chegg, a crowdsourced website with answers to exam questions; and used calculators, which were technically verboten. 

He finished the exam in under an hour, he said. Other students spent two or three hours on it. Some classmates paid older students who had already taken the course to do it for them. 

“Professors just don’t care,” he told me.

The online wrinkle is obviously an addition to the mix, but I encountered this exact scenaio at Georgetown Law Center. My Constitutional Law professor, Nathan Lewin, gave the class a take-home, open-book, self-timed mid-term exam. We were to complete the multi-question essay test in a single session of three hours precisely, which is exactly what I did, dropping my pen mid-way through the last question. After I turned the exam in, I was informed by several classmates that I was a sucker.

Nobody else seemed to have stopped taking the exam before they were finished even if they were technically out of time. Many students took an extra hour or more; many others split the exam up into multiple sessions. I assumed this would be the case from the beginning, and regarded the exam structure as irresponsible. I told Lewin that, too.

“So I’m going to be graded on a curve in competition with students who took extra time to complete the exam,” I concluded. “I guess so!” he replied. I didn’t care about my grade: I had already guaranteed a blah law school record by spending most of my time building Law Center theater company. I resented his attitude, however. I even registered an official complaint with the Law Canter’s administration about the exam.

What happens when cheating becomes the norm? That’s easy: cheating becomes acceptable and the cultural norm. People like Joe Biden and George Santos get elected to high office. Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez make millions and get elected to the Hall of Fame. Students who paid off their college loans watch those who didn’t smugly smile as they get rewarded. The real best and brightest find themselves frequently bested by the lazy, dishonest and mediocre.

Well, that’s why I’ve been a full-time ethicist for the past 25 years. Proceeding through life as ethically as one can is its own reward; I don’t want to succeed by deviousness, technicalities and cheating, because to me that isn’t success. My mission is to make that concept, and that idea, sufficiently ingrained in the culture that what I will now call The Lewin Effect is isolated with the Bidens and Santoses. They are almost always exposed, eventually. Cheating becomes a personal norm, as well as a societal one, and they cross one line too many, like Bill Clinton.

Even when they fool all of the people all of the time, like Richard Rich, the true-life villain of “A Man For All Season,” they die knowing what they are, and live on in infamy …

My father began the Marshall tradition of defying superiors and bosses that wanted him to compromise his principles for easy gain, and I have continued it, well aware that this habit will likely have me living in a cardboard box sooner or later. From the academic perspective, I put the blame for my resistance to the Siren song of easy cheating to my strange and wonderful high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Cosloy, who taught me more about ethics than he did science.

I got a B+ on my mid-term, and felt that I deserved an A. I went to the teacher and made my case; he said, in response, that it had been close, but that my exam had just fallen short of what he felt was “excellent.” When I tried a rebuttal, he interrupted, and said, “Look, Jack, it’s absurd to argue about grades. What should matter to you is whether you learned the material. How about this: I’ll flip a coin, and if it comes up heads, you get your A. If it comes up tails, I’ll change your grade to a D.”

And I said, “Deal.”

He flipped, it came up heads, and I got my A. “Well,” Mr. Cosloy said,”Does that grade make you happy now?”

I never challenged a grade again; in fact, I never did any project, paper or exam thinking about or caring about the grade I would receive. What mattered from that day on was what I felt I had achieved and learned from the experience.

[Mr. Cosloy was eventually fired from Arlington High School. He refused to perform his assigned duties as a bathroom monitor, to report students for smoking.]


Pointer: Sarah B.

One thought on “I Suppose The Good News Is That I Encountered The Problem Of Academic Apathy Regarding Cheating Decades Ago…And The Remedy Is Still The Same: Ethics

  1. Was Mr. Cosloy a smoker who believed in honor among thieves?

    Our ninth grade Latin I teacher, the hilarious Brother Giles, would pull his unfiltered cigarette out in the last minute of a class so he could fire it up the instant the bell rang, ending the period. He’d smoke outside in the outdoor hallway for the five minutes until the bell for the next period was about to ring, whereupon he’d extinguish the cigarette as the bell rang and he ducked back into the classroom, putting the then half- or third-smoked cigarette in his pocket, ready for re-lighting at the end of the next period. A Marist brother, wearing his full, black frock and the strange white, small, cardboard bib they wore as collars. An unforgettable combination of the Godly and the worldly.

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