Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why is it wrong for a kid to cheat on a test?

This post by Justin McBrayer got me thinking about the moral status of children. The author criticizes the common practice of teaching students that opinions are unprovable “beliefs” while facts are provably “true”—thus, in effect, teaching them that there can be no moral truths. As a result, the author contends, students think a statement such as “It is wrong to cheat on a test” is merely an opinion, and cannot be “true.”

I agree with McBrayer at least to this extent: Whether there are “moral facts” is a philosophical question, open to debate, which means the school should not be teaching any view of it as a settled fact. Under the school’s own definition, the assertion that “value claims cannot be true” is itself an unprovable opinion, a “mere” belief. From the piece, though, it sounds like the author believes that the opposite “fact” should be taught as true. Either one looks like indoctrination to me.

The more interesting question, for me, is why we think it’s wrong for a kid to cheat on a test in school. I’m not saying it isn’t wrong, but I do think it matters how we get to that conclusion. It can’t be simply because the school prohibits it, right? Certainly the school can’t be the final arbiter of what is morally right and wrong. If it were, then the worst practices would become morally right just because a school requires them. (Was it morally wrong for a black child to try to attend a whites-only school?) So how should a child reach the conclusion that cheating is wrong?

In the end, a child has only two choices: (1) use her own judgment to decide what’s right and wrong, or (2) obey some external authority. If we’re going to raise kids to be anything other than obedient followers of other people’s orders, we have to help develop their ability to do (1). But instead, schools seem to focus entirely on (2). As McBrayer writes, “They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.”

Applying judgment to the question, the child might take into account certain facts. One is that the child has no say in the making of school rules, and no choice about whether to be there.  Someone who is enfranchised arguably has a duty to follow democratically enacted rules. But since a child has no say in those rules, the same argument does not apply. Is it immoral for a slave to “cheat” a master by breaking the master’s rules? It’s far from a perfect analogy, but enfranchisement has to be relevant to the answer.

The child might also consider the nature of the test. Even now, in the age of high-stakes testing, kids take lots of tests on which a high score doesn’t give them any competitive advantage over other students. A fifth-grader’s high score on this week’s vocabulary test gives her no material edge over her fellow classmates; it just helps the teacher determine whether she learned her vocabulary. If a kid cheats on that kind of test, she’s really just cheating herself out of an educational opportunity—one that was imposed on her without her say. Is cheating oneself in that way morally wrong? If so, we’ve raised the bar awfully high; adults frequently pass up unsought opportunities for self-improvement. At worst, we would probably call that unwise; at best, a perfectly defensible exercise of one’s freedom. But immoral?

What about tests that do give a kid a material advantage over other kids? Cheating on the SAT, for example, gives you an edge in the competitive college admissions system. Granted, it’s a system the kids had no say in creating, and which may or may not be morally defensible. Nonetheless, I’d say that it’s wrong to cheat in that system, because it takes unfair advantage of the honest test-takers.

But there’s a difference between enforcing a rule and forcing kids to agree with the rule. The latter would be wrong and anyway impossible. If we’re going to help kids develop judgment about right and wrong, we can’t do it simply by dictating “right” answers to moral questions. Without more, that’s just obedience training. It would make much more sense to engage students in reasoning about moral quandaries, to model rigorous thinking about those issues, and to recognize that, whether we like it or not, ultimately each person reaches his or her own answers. (See this post.) That’s not to say we shouldn’t enforce rules against cheating, just that rule-following and moral reasoning are two different things.

In any event, schools do kids a disservice by pretending moral questions don’t exist or by oversimplifying them—usually in ways that promote obedience and authoritarian values. Here are two hypotheticals. (The first is actually a true story.) Are the answers straightforward?

1. An elementary school teacher keeps a candy jar in her room. She uses the candy to reward students who meet her behavioral “expectations”—sitting still, being quiet, etc. Some kids get lots of rewards; others, who have a harder time “behaving,” get few or none, and simply watch as other kids are repeatedly singled out as “good.” One day, a kid who is never rewarded steals all the candy from the jar, takes it out to recess, and shares it with everyone. Morally wrong?

2. Some high school students decide to protest what they consider to be the excessive use (and misuse) of standardized testing in school. When it’s time for the annual Common Core assessments, some of them simply refuse to take the tests. Others take the tests but give wrong or random answers. Both groups are violating school rules. Both groups’ actions undermine the validity of the scores for everyone who takes the test. Morally wrong?

I’d like to see the classroom in which those hypotheticals are freely discussed, with no pressure on the kids to reach predetermined “right” answers. I think that would be much more likely to produce good citizenship than preachy posters, annual bathroom tours, behavior prizes, and endless lectures on “expectations.”


Michael said...

Chris, interesting post, and I agree with a great deal of it. I too think we need better and more critical deliberation about ethics and morality in our schools.

I appreciate that you identified the key issue that McBrayer was pointing out. That is, that our schools are implicitly (and explicitly) denying moral realism.

Still, I don't think it is indoctrination to teach that some moral claims are truth (x is the right the to do; y is bad; and so forth). I agree with McBrayer that schools would be inconsistent if they did not assert that some moral claims are ture, since they assert that it is wrong to cheat, commit sexual assault, disrespect another student, and so forth.

Still, I think your conclusion that public schools shouldn't take a stand either way is philosophically reasonable . But then, to be consistent, neither should our schools operate as if it is morally wrong to cheat, lie, harass, bully, or the like. It shouldn't act as if every student deserves respect. It shouldn't act as if it is good to produce good citizens. It shouldn't act as if autonomy in decision-making is important. Philosophically, one could maintain that view consistently, but it is highly dubious ethically and likely impossible to implement practically. We make practical value judgments about these matters constantly.

As for your examples: I think the primary problem with your first example (the Candy theft) relates to how such an action would help form a child's character--it's not about the outcome (giving candy to all) or the child not having some say in the rules (autonomy), nor is it about whether the rule is good/bad (I know you think such a rule is bad); rather it has to do with does the child become a better person or a worse person by his/her action.

As for the second example, I would probably disagree with the action(s), but it is not morally wrong to commit such civil disobedience in principle.

Chris said...

Michael -- Thanks for the comment. I guess I don't really see why it's inconsistent to say, in effect, "We, the adults who run the school, believe that certain moral claims are true, and so we make and enforce rules reflecting that. But ultimately you will reach your own conclusions about whether those claims, or any moral claims, are true." I'm not saying they would talk about it that way with the kids, just that I don't see an inconsistency there.

As for the idea that a particular act might be wrong because of its effect on character development, isn't that kind of circular? If a particular act isn't wrong, how could doing it make the child a worse person? Don't you have to determine whether the act is wrong before you can say that doing it will harm the child's character development?

Michael said...

Chris: I don't your hypothetical quotation is inconsistent. Rather, it would be inconsistent to say make that claim, and then to also teach that all value claims are merely opinions (i.e., not true and without good reason). It would also be inconsistent to says "We... believe certain moral claims are true" but we aren't taking a position on (either for or against) the metaphysical question of whether moral claims can, in principle, be true. I think that is wholly consistent with letting students and faculty/staff reach their own conclusions about both the particular moral claims and the metaphysical claim.

Character development: I think character is important in moral education; much more so than is often admitted to among contemporary ethicists (who tend to be Kantians and Utilitarians). One can do the right thing and still not be a good person.

As for your example, what I meant was that one can agree that the practice of imposing behavioral norms in the way suggested is bad (I have mixed thoughts), and yet it would be bad to subvert it through theft largely because of bad motivations.

FedUpMom said...

In the ideal world that exists nowhere outside my own head, it is wrong to cheat on tests because it makes it impossible to learn from the test. Tests should be designed to assess a child's learning, so that the child knows what she needs to work on. Tests can actually be useful for this.

What actually happens in schools is that tests are used to generate grades, which students (and a lot of parents and teachers) take as a measure of the child's worth. Naturally cheating is the result.