Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Cheater Generation?

Being actively involved in the education world, I encounter a measure of academic dishonesty. And it doesn't surprise me that a certain number of students attempt to circumvent rules by cheating. What does pique my curiosity is the growing number of students who are willing to cheat and have no difficulty in rationalizing their behavior as ethically sound.

Also, is cheating more prevalent in today's society? If so, why? And does it matter if one cheats as long as the desired results are achieved?

One of the generational changes that I believe has affected the cheating phenomenon is attitude toward authority and the 'establishment'. Each generation of Americans in the last 50 years has become increasingly skeptical of authority figures. My parents were raised in that time period where rules were followed and adult figures were rarely questioned.

In 1962, the youth of America had little reason to distrust authority figures. Government was deemed honest and reliable, policemen were respected, suburbs were safe locations to raise families, and parents instilled strict discipline in their children. Since that time, people have realized the fallibility of our government, our parents, and embraced a need to question authority.

After having several conversation with my own students, I've noticed an interesting trait among youth today. They question teachers and other authority figures like never before. And why? Because of major letdowns in society.

They characterize politicians as 'crooks' because of the realization that those individuals deceived and lied to the American public. Police officers have been exposed as being 'dirty'. Children are more exposed to the flaws of their parents. They have reason to question. And we ought not be surprised when that questioning takes place in the arena where they spend half of their waking hours.

Though society has changed, does that mean students cheat more often today than in years past? Research suggests they do not. Instances of academic dishonesty have remained fairly consistent. The real change is in the boldness and willingness to rationalize the unethical behavior.

Many students I have encountered who were willing to cheat often did so because they lacked respect for the instructor of the course. These students came from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, and both genders. Why should they work hard for someone they do not respect? Copying homework, cheating on tests, and other forms of academic dishonesty are seen as acceptable alternatives when a lackadaisical teacher gives the assignment.

In reality, the level of competence or hard working nature of the instructor does not justify misrepresenting academic work. Would an employer accept this justification in completing an assigned task? Many students I asked that question of were quick to point out that while they would cheat in an academic setting, their readiness to 'cheat' in the business world would be different. When I began asking this question, I anticipated a decreased willingness to cut corners for fear of losing a job.

I was surprised to learn that many students actually saw their duty to an employer was producing results -- that the ends always justify the means. And though I can't speak to the validity of this in the business world, it wouldn't shock me to find this to be true.

This concept also led me to think about the way in which educators and parents look at what children produce. How do we gauge the success of our children? We examine grades and test scores, but how often do we ask if a child is learning? Parents are satisfied with the end result of a good grade, because they presume it means learning is taking place. Typically, when parents see poor grades, they punish their children in some fashion, and the child often will do whatever is necessary to avoid that punishment and regain parent approval.

The last half century has seen enormous leaps in technology that have also made academic dishonesty easier and more tempting than ever. The advent of personal computers and the Internet provide us with more access to information than ever dreamed possible. Any quick search on Google yields millions of results on every topic imaginable. Most students come to the conclusion that the likelihood of being caught plagiarizing is minimal.

Mobile phones now have capabilities that allow for high resolution pictures to be taken instantly and transferred to many recipients in a matter of seconds. Audio files with information can be played through the same phone, while unsuspecting teachers believe a student is listening to music.

Advances in technology have bred a society accustomed to instant gratification. Communication, food preparation, education, entertainment, even religion -- all can be had with no wait time. Our society has every whim catered immediately, from text messages to 'on demand' television. The current generation has never known life without these items, and as such, have little appreciation for tasks that take long amounts of time to complete. The result is the willingness to cheat, because it is the quick and easy path.

Ironically, I suspect the lack of patience and the ease with which students give up when they cannot efficiently obtain desired results might actually be part of why the prevalence of academic dishonesty has not increased.

Although cheating occurs on a regular basis, I often hear the question asked, "Should we care?" Absolutely. When students are academically dishonest, they become more willing to cross other ethical lines. These lines may blur into illegal activities that have grave consequences. Moreover, when people show a propensity to cheat in their work, it diminishes their ability to think creatively and devise solutions to problems.

One of America's great advantages in the world is the ability to problem solve, which is far different than simply stealing the ideas of others. It is in the interest and greater good of the nation to foster a renewed sense of morality and ethics into the youth of the generation.

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