With Halloween over, one would think that there is nothing left to be afraid of. Yet despite the passing of the holiday of eerie ghosts and goblins, there is a residual effect of these specters. Now you may have packed away the costume, or may not believed in creatures from the dead roaming the planet, but I will tell you some scary things. Sadly, they are about living human behavior.
In my most recent posts, I have been talking about the devastating effects of the cheating scandal emanating out of Thailand by a Chinese student and the subsequent cheaters at other centers in Asia. My last post about plagiarism discussed, as well, the truly scary and illegal practice of copying and using someone else’s work as one’s own. While plagiarism and cheating are manifestations of oneself gone awry, there is, at the heart of this behavior, something fundamentally freakish.
When perceptions become skewed, sometimes risky actions are taken that may seem appropriate for the attainment of a desired goal. While we really don’t know exactly why students cheat on the SAT exam, we can determine some motivation behind the action. Some of those motivations may include parental or peer pressure, expectations of school principals, or the desire to try to be better than ones peers in a competitive environment.
Last week, I had a student tell me at the last minute that he had decided to apply to a highly regarded university. He had done no work on the schools essays up to that point. My instant reply to his email was, “What?” His reply was what I expected – “I am applying for my parents, my school, and just to try.” While I wanted to ask, “What in tarnation are you thinking?” my real response was that these factors are some of the top reasons for not applying to a school.
In a later conversation with this student, I explained that “just trying” was not a good reason. For top schools you don’t “just try." You are both qualified and competitive or you are not. He was not. Applying to a school for family and friends is also poor choice making. While I cannot agree more that the influence of family is terribly important, actions that are taken, like cheating on the SAT or having a school “fix” a transcript, is unjustified.
Pride seems to be one of the chief offenders that cause people to do take these silly actions. The idea of “I want to make my parents proud” seems lost in translation when a student cheats, lies, or steals to get ahead. The shame, once caught, must be devastating. Or at least it should be.
But what causes people to take such actions? Last week I had a conversation with the director of admission at a boarding school. He has a group of Grade 10 students whom he advises and they meet once a week to talk about issues. The school had recently had a cheating incident (yes, students in the US cheat too). So he was talking to them about honor. To summarize the conversation he had with his students, he asked the students that what was worse – stealing 50 cents, US 1, US 5, US 500, or US 5000. He also asked if they were to catch someone stealing, would they turn that student in. The boys replied they would never turn in a fellow student – the honor among thieves’ motto prevalent among younger kids. But then when asked which was worse, few students said anything about the lesser quantities of money focusing on the larger amounts: US 500 and US 5000. The intent of his question was to get at the heart of true honor and the respect of others living and working in a community.
Is there really a difference between 50 cents and US 500? At the core of it, no there is not. Stealing is stealing, cheating is cheating, and lying is lying. But there are degrees certainly. The Bernard Madoff’s of the world started somewhere and escalated to billions of dollars. I was recently interviewed for Time Magazine about the SAT situation and my comment that there was seemingly no regard for the tens of thousands of students now left wondering whether or not their scores will be released or cancelled.
It is one thing to speed on the highway. When you get caught, it is only you that gets a ticket. There is very little effect on others. It is when speeding causes a major collision that your action becomes truly harmful. But in the case of the SAT, the harm done to others is magnificent, and I do not mean that in a good way. Stealing or cheating harms the community, reflects poorly on a group of people, and causes enormous emotional harm.
When I asked a student why he thought students cheated, his response was that he understood why, but he could not understand the action. He was resigned to the fact that people feel the need to cheat, and felt sorry for them. So I come back to my proposition – why do we do things to set ourselves apart by taking harmful and potentially life altering actions? If we cheat or lie, do we really feel better about ourselves? Though our friends and family clap us on our backs for our achievement, is that achievement not, in fact, hallow? Do we not end up living a life wondering if we’ll ever get caught and if our actions will catch up to us?
The other day, the Beijing Harvard Club found that one of the members was not a graduate of Harvard – never went. This sham, like countless others, happen all the time, all over the world. So now that Halloween is over, as you take off the mask and costume, take a really good look at yourself in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see, work to improve. Be honorable about your actions and people will respect you for who you are, not what you pretend to be.
Photo: ryanremillard (flickr)