Chapter 8

 

Why Bother?

 

                   Most professors are annoyed or angered when they dis­cover academic dishonesty in a student.  In some the reaction is extreme: they are furious, and impatient with what they often see as a too-lenient college attitude towards errant students.  They would rather expel them all.  ("Exterminate all the brutes," wrote Mr. Kurtz.)  At the other extreme are those --- and they, too, are not rare, --- those who ask, why bother?  That is, why look for evidence of academic dishonesty at all?  "They are only cheating them­selves," is a phrase commonly heard to justify classroom laissez-faire.  The analogy between cheating on an examination or a paper and theft from a shop is not valid, they will say.  The latter must be stopped, they will agree, or production and trade will come to a halt, impover­ishing us all.  But cheating in class? Nothing of the sort.

 

                   Some students come to college to learn; they will learn if they study, whether or not some of their fellows cheat.  Others' cheating cannot deprive them of what they have learned, after all, the way theft deprives them of money they have earned.  If there is no victim in the case, why call it a crime?  If, as many say, a univer­sity is a community where, hand in hand, scholars old and young pursue the truth with no thought of honors and wealth, what is there to be stolen, and from whom?

 

                   To some degree this rather sentimental view of the academy is true.  It would be entirely true, I am sure, if there could be no honor or wealth to be got from scholarly pursuits or their tokens.  It would also be true that under such cir­cumstances our university popu­lation wouldn't be ten percent of what it now is.  Not that honors and wealth are the only attractions by which the other ninety percent are brought there, only that man does not live by wisdom alone.

 

                   We must recognize two things here: first, that without reward of a mundane sort almost nobody of college age would seek scholarly knowledge.  (Without reward, indeed, almost nobody would work at anything.)  Secondly, however, there is no shame in this state of affairs.  The tradition of the community of disinterested scholars must not blind us to the fact that even the most devoted of them -- of us -- was usually set on his path by a father's praise or the pleasure of pleasing a teacher, some reward not intrinsic to the performance.  It shouldn't surprise us that even more store is set on rewards by that majority of our students who do not aspire to a life of scholarship at all, but who still will enter the world improved by whatever contact with scholars we are able to give them.

 

                   Not only is our scheme of credits and degrees useful in persuading young human beings to overcome a natural reluctance to work; but, because these tokens represent to the outside world work done, they become a certificate of ability, with a monetary value.  This is a novelty in our civilization.


 

                   There was a time when praise, honors, and Bachelor of Arts degrees were in themselves sufficient to induce young men, for the while, to think and read and dispute, and then go wiser and happier into the world.  But once in the world, they were no better fitted to build railroads or grow wheat than their less well educated brethren.  Technology, business, farming, salesmanship, navigation, and war had little to do with what went on at Yale in 1850, though one must make exception for studies like divinity and medicine, which did lead to certifications having monetary value.  A man with a taste for the liberal arts might well have got something indirectly valuable, like the ability to shine at a dinner party, or even perhaps a truer understanding of the motives of men, but no B.A. ever went down from Yale able to command thereby a high starting salary at the Stock Exchange, let alone an iron foundry.

 

                   Today it is different.  "Knowledge is power" is almost literally true; "Knowledge is wealth" is probably truer.  By almost the same device that gives green paper the value of gold, our society confers wealth on holders of university degrees, in the expectation that degrees represent knowledge and are therefore worth the price.  We professors are guardians of the integrity of these degrees, and of their components: course grades, hours of credit, letters of recommendation.  Implicit in every transcript of credits and in every degree is the assertion that it represents what it says it represents: so much work of such a quality.  If we pay no attention to the fact that some people receive these grades and degrees by stealth, we devalue all our degrees and are printing lies on sheepskin.

                  

                   The quality of our product, in a given university, is judged over the years by the average performance of our certified graduates.  It will not do to say to ourselves, "The cheating student will soon be found out, once he enters the real world."  True, he may be, but he will only be noticed as disappointing in performance, not as one who has cheated; the false certification will be attributed to us, not him.

 

                   Not only would inattention to dishonesty degrade our average product, but since the luck of the draw inevitably counts for something in every career, we may thereby have given a differentially unjust head start to some of our graduates, especially in domains where there is some rigidity in the market:  law school and medical school admissions, for example.

 

                   Having admitted all this, there are professors who say, "Let them cheat if they like.  We are not an employment agency.  Let us teach as well as we can, let them learn what they will, and let the world judge the result according to its desire."  Caveat emptor. 

 

                   This stance is unrealistic.  Its logical conclusion is the abolition of grades and degrees, contempt for accreditation, even abolition of examinations and other assignments, for who would want to waste his time reading and criticizing a plagiarism?  There is no audience for that.  We would end, among other things, by aban­doning every method by which we judge the value of what we ourselves are doing as teachers.  Not only the outside world, but we, would lost track of what, if any­thing, our students are accomplishing under our tutelage.  Not that all this is impossible or ridiculous -- the public libraries don’t certify their borrowers, and  yet are certainly valued as educational institutions -- only that if we gave up grades and degrees we would be giving up part of our present function, part of what the world expects of us.  We cannot do this honestly without announcing it quite explicitly to those who pay our way and use our products.

 

                   Or perhaps we can maintain our Registrars, examinations and grades, but merely not watch to see if they be subverted, relying on the honesty of the great majority to maintain the values at a reason­able par.  Many professors do just this, and it more or less works.  Why bother to seek out academic criminals?

 

                   The unreality here is that actually there are among us a good many professors who do police the examination rooms, who do scrutinize their papers for plagiarism, and who do pay attention to the results of their instruction.  That is why the system "more or less works" for the others.  These are the professors who hold back the anarchy that the others, who take advantage of their efforts, are unwittingly courting.  It is like the streets of the city where, even though only one in every twenty who run a red light is stopped by a patrol car, exactly that one arrest is what holds back the total disso­lution of the traffic light system.  Ten thousand cars stop at the light; twenty do not; one is ticketed.  Does anyone seriously suggest that the police stop this enforcement?  Who says,

 

                   1.  Most violators will escape, whatever you do;

 

                   2.  It is a nuisance to keep watching the roads; 

 

                   3.  Policing invades a motorist's privacy and insults his honor;

 

                   4.  People who violate the rules will themselves suffer from the violation even without police and traffic courts;

 

                   5.  Almost everyone stops at red lights anyhow.

 

                   Argument (1) is defeatism, (2) is laziness, (3) is sentimental irresponsibility, (4) is wishful thinking which ignores the consequent suffering of the innocent, and (5) would soon cease to be true, were not the police somewhere about.  The same spectrum of arguments is heard concerning the system of proctoring examinations and the scrutiny of papers for plagiarism, though seldom all five from the same person. 

 

                   Proponents of a self-enforced honor code, for example, sometimes lean heavily on the analogue of (3).  They believe the as­sumption of honesty will almost always have moral force enough to ensure it.  But this is an idealism that suffers from the same difficul­ties as any other communistic or anarchistic scheme.  It can only apply to a closed society where the ideals in question are already universally observed, and any violator instantly and with horror ostracized, and where each entrant to the community has gone through a lengthy and expensive rite of passage before naturally and joyfully taking up his adult responsibilities.  This may have been so at Luxor and My­cenae (though I doubt it) but it is certainly not the American university.

 

                   Even in colleges without formal "honor code" pledges, there are professors who give examinations and assignments amenable to cheating and plagiarism and then, on their own, refuse to police the results, or even to stay in the exami­nation room, and who justify their blindness by a statement of faith in the honesty of the students.  How convenient and, since a trusting nature is so often honored, how virtuous withal!  I say they are deceiving themselves, and so say all the surveys to be found in the journals of education, sociology and psychology that deal with the attitudes and practices of college students.  All.  Every one.

 

                   Some I have spoken to take the attitude that it is beneath their dignity, or otherwise repugnant to them, to police examinations.  I must reply that no necessary task is beneath anyone's dignity, nor should it be repugnant if it is honest and productive.  However, it may not be the best use of a scholar's time to have him patrol the aisle of an examination room, when someone else can be hired at lower cost.  He is a physicist (say) and not a traffic cop for obvious reasons, but among these there is no mention of dignity or repugnance.

 

                   The professor who walks out of an examination room that ought to be watched is thus sometimes confusing two issues: the morality of the super­visory function and its economic value.  I have no sympathy for his moral scruples, and even suspect he is subscribing to the under­graduate morality of "not squealing,"  while reconciling it with his quasi-parental role as a teacher by making sure he does not see. 

 

                   For his economic argument, on the other hand, I have great sympathy (cf. Adam Smith Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 10), and I would urge every college to provide interested professors with all possible assistance from testing services, teaching assistants, the Office of the Dean of Students, or any other agency that can, at lower cost than scholars' time, purify the examination procedures and render their results more accurate.  This costs money, but is not to be construed as a "fringe benefit" or "perk" for the lazy professor, any more than is library assistance or computer services.  It is part of the cost of producing educated graduates with trustworthy degrees, and skimping here is not a saving.

 

                   Yet there are professors who do not want to "render their results more accurate."  They oppose credentialism from the beginning.  They point to India, where the struggle for college degrees as a road to a civil service sinecure is so intense that cheating on the examinations is in some places institutionalized, with standard prices set for bribes to proctors.  Genuine bloody riots have followed attempts to change the system. (See The New York Times, passim, e.g. May 20, 1970 and July 25, 1971.)  The following item, reprinted in its entirety, is from the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle for July 5, 1979:

 

                   NEW DELHI, India -- The use of policemen to prevent cheating at a college in the eastern Indian city of Arrah touched off riots yesterday in which police shot and killed two students.  Forty other people, including 30 policemen, were injured, the United News of India said. -- AP

 

                   See what happens where degrees are worth money?

 

                   Even where cheating is not rampant, the argument goes on, the concentration on grades and examinations is destruc­tive of true educa­tion.  Professors who attend to the pre­vention of cheating, or even to the construction of measuring instru­ments for learning, are wasting their time on the wrong things and inducing their students to do the same.               

I know a professor of economics, a man who spent most of his career in business but who, nearing retirement, took up the teaching of elementary economics in the evening division of a city university, and now continues in it full time.  He has not spent his life in the academic world, and he is committed to no academic cause except his own interest in economics and his passion for conveying its elements to his students, hardly any of them destined for a life of scholarship.

 

                   He gives homework exercises, he says, and reads the results carefully, commenting in the margins and praising or criticizing where appropriate.  Sure, some of the students copy from others, he says, but this does not concern him.  He just hopes that even the copiers will have learned something from having written down the words, and from reading his criticisms.  He never says, "This assignment is to be done independently, without consulting others."  He wants his students to talk to each other about the assignments, and nothing pleases him more than to overhear two of them arguing, after class, about the answer to one of his set ques­tions.  At the end of the semester, everyone who attended class regularly and turned in papers (of whatever sort) gets a passing grade, and the good ones get As and Bs.  He doesn't know whether his college has an honor board, and he doesn't care.  Why does it worry anyone else, he asks.

 

                   This man's classes are thus something like a public library.  People borrow books or not, as they like.  The librarian gives help where needed, but never thinks to enquire whether the borrowers are "really" reading and understanding what they are getting.  There is simply no such thing as cheating (apart from stealing books, or other vandalism, which is not in question here).  There are no degrees, grades or honors, and yet the public library is generally accounted a valuable educational institution.

 

                   It is hard to know what direct answer one can give this teacher of economics. In my personal conversation with him I was in fact silenced.  The answer is too long; it is implicit in the very text of this entire essay.  An indirect answer might be, "Do you think it is possible to run a whole college this way?  Be realistic; what do you think would be the situation here if everyone conducted his classes and grading as you do, at all levels from freshman to senior?  The Trustees would award them all degrees, to be sure, but do you think they or their parents would applaud?  Do you think, after a few years of this, your students then would be the kind you have now?  I think the ones you cherish, the ones who argue the assignments in the hallway, will have started going to another college, whose degrees will get them a job or some other recognition of accomplishment, leaving you with only those who can't gain admission there.”  The public library is an admirable institution, but its methods cannot assure us that its patrons have in fact learned anything.

 

                   Well, this evening school professor of economics is not asking everyone to do as he does.  He is teaching freshmen, mainly, and maybe some others.  He is personally giving no degrees.  And he knows -- he knows -- that he is teaching his duffers more this way, his way, than if he forced cramming and dis­simulation on them all.

 

                   I would have to say, look at the traffic light argument # 5 up there again.  You are the man who quite rightly notices that there is no gain in stopping at a certain red light. No traffic is coming the other way, and your errand is an important one.  Why not drive on through?  The answer is plain enough.  Most people stop at red lights, and you are taking advantage of them.  It is because they stop at red lights that you got as far as you did on this important errand, that you got safely to the corner where you now propose to run the red light.  Have you the right to ask all the others, whose compliance with the law is the way your present privileged position came about, to continue to do as you do not?       

 

                   In other words, the professor who abandons the fight against anarchy profits unfairly from his neighbors' labors in much the same way that the student plagiarist does.  The student can argue that what he has taken from the average value of a degree, or the class average on the exam, is very small.  And perhaps his errand is an important one, too. But he hasn't the right to appropriate others' honesty, and to give him that right explicitly would soon destroy the entire structure by which it is made possible to rely on the general honesty as a background to one's own activity.

 

                   That the policing for honesty is tedious or imperfect is no argument against it; likewise, it is no argument to say that the depreda­tions of those who are currently malefactors are minor.  But there is one argument of this retired businessman that is worth further considera­tion: his comment that his students learn more when they are set to arguing with each other about their work than when they are given secret "take-home" exams to be answered "without outside assistance."  One cannot but agree.  But is this virtue of his method incompatible with rules for academic dishonesty?

 

                   Not at all.  In Chapter 1 above, the note on plagiarism mentioned the obvious fact that we all use one another's efforts, and that we should.  This only becomes cheating when we pretend we have not.  Since it is educationally valuable to talk things over with one's neighbor, a professor should give assignments designed to encourage his students to discuss the material in question.  He should take pleasure in over­hearing heated debate on the questions he has set.  But there is no reason for him to give grades based directly on the documents that emerge from that debate.  There is time enough for grades at exam time. 

 

                   The economics professor said that some of the papers turned in to him were copied from fellow students, but that he didn't mind.  The only reason any student would want to copy a homework assignment was, of course, that he thought a grade rode on the result.  I would advise that professor to make it so clear that no grade (for the record) is attached to his exercises that only people wanting to practice their stenography would have reason to copy anything.  But if he fears that without a grade for the record many of his students would not do the assignment, then he is putting up red traffic lights without police; on a college and curriculum-wide basis it won't work.

 

                   This problem of "grades versus learning" turns up in other contexts, of course, not just in connection with dishonesty.  There is no doubt that teaching "for the exam" can stultify the student's imagina­tion and replace curiosity with anxiety, even when the inducement to cheat is zero.  It is most vicious where exams are many and niggling, where each piece of paper gets a grade and many little grades are averaged to make a grand grade.  The attention is focused on small things, and the student feels there is not time to take a bird's-eye view of anything. The next test, which is the main thing on his mind, cannot, of its nature, reward such a view, and he wants to do what the teacher thinks is important, i.e. what that teacher sees fit to reward.

 

                   The best cure for this state of affairs is, alas, one which no college in America will dare inaugurate in the present era.  It not only solves the problem of academic myopia; it solves the cheating problem at the same time --- and all without sacrifice of the certifica­tion function of the grading system.  But that is another story, told in Chapter 9 below, while what we are concerned with in the present text is the American college education system as it stands.  With proper attention to teaching method, we can still go some way towards relieving the daily pressure of small graded assignments and tests, and towards encouraging that freedom of discourse and of getting help (i.e. "doing research") that scholarship requires, even under the present system (cf. Chapter 5, The Assignment).  This way to give and judge assignments advances education at exactly the same time as it discourages cheating, nor does it require us to abandon certification; but even at its best it will not permit us to shrug and say, "Why bother?"