Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Cheating In School As a Moral Imperative?

Cevin Soling has a knack for producing provocative works — literature, music, films — that offer less than politically correct social commentary. His 2009 documentary film, The War On Children, for example, "concludes that schools are not only failing to educate, but are increasingly authoritarian institutions more akin to prisons that are eroding the foundations of American democracy." (Maybe he has seen the prison-like design of my alma mater, Weber High School.)

So perhaps it shouldn't be too shocking to read Soling's recent Wired op-ed, where he asserts that cheating by students in compulsory K-12 schools is more than just a good thing; it's "a moral imperative."

How's that? Since our earliest days it has been drilled into each of us that cheating in school is bad, Bad, BAD, BAD! Not so, says Soling. He suggests that cheating is only bad in systems where people are voluntary participants under reasonable conditions. Cheating by involuntary participants subjected to unreasonable conditions should not only be accepted; it should be applauded.

Hold on a minute. By law children are unable to consent and their parents (within limits) consent for them. Doesn't this mean that children that are attending school have consented to the conditions via their parents? Soling doesn't address this angle. But he might very well retort that the system is still involuntary because parents are coerced into enrolling their children in school lest they suffer unreasonable punishment for failing to do so.

Even if consent is assumed, however, Soling has a problem with the "unreasonable conditions" of our public school systems. What is unreasonable?
  • Grades that "are the currency and sole commodity of schools" do not actually represent useful learning. Yet, they "are a major component of a student’s portfolio and have the potential to impact their future." As in, getting good grades means that a student knows how to work the system, not that they are capable in any of the subjects graded.
  • Tests that mainly measure the ability of a student to "retain the material just long enough to take the test" treat "knowledge as a disposable commodity that is only relevant when it is tested."
  • Students are alienated from the uninspiring work required at school. They have little real input on what they must learn or what they must do to achieve an acceptable grade.
  • Although Soling doesn't mention it, homework has been documented to be little more than pointless busy work that mainly shows how much power the system has over a student's free time. A review of the full body of research on this matter reveals that "there’s not much to prop up the belief that students must be made to work a second shift after they get home from school."
The natural response to such an unethical system is to cheat, maintains Soling. We repeatedly lionize American prisoners of war that improved their situations in captivity by "cheating." None of us think of these people as being unethical for breaking their captors' rules because their cheating was morally justified.

Similarly, our public school environments have "created a set of conditions where cheating is necessary and justifiable," writes Soling. He claims that the students that (successfully) cheat develop useful creativity, show "disdain against an arbitrary and repressive institution," and boost their self esteem. All of these factors can serve them well in their future careers and citizenship.

Furthermore, Soling claims that it's not the cheaters we should be worrying about, but those that don't cheat. I am reminded of Stockholm Syndrome when Soling writes that these unfortunate souls "have internalized their oppression and might lack the necessary skills to rally and lobby against abuses of power that are perpetrated by governing bodies."

I'm sure that the initial response of most people to Soling's promotion of cheating at school will be disgust and dismay. They will see it as an attack on honesty, which is one of the pillars of a functional moral society. But what of Soling's contention that the institution of public schooling is so corrupt as to make cheating in school as morally justifiable as the cheating of American POWs in captivity?

Honest people will have differing opinions regarding the answer to that question. Folks that hew more authoritarian will lean one direction, while more libertarian folks will lean another. But Soling offers some food for thought. Perhaps we should ponder:
  • At what point does a system become so unreasonable as to justify subversive behavior?
  • Do we accept the current system simply because we are familiar with it?
  • Does the fact that the majority has not yet risen up against the current system render it ethical? In other words, does might make right?
  • We claim that we force our children to engage in this system for their own good. But is the trade off worth it?
  • Could other educational approaches (also here and here) be more ethical?

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