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Boys and Cheating

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 19 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the problem of cheating, especially by boys in the academic setting. This section discusses the different attitudes towards cheating. This is the first section of the chapter.

Temptation to cheat

There are several situations in which boys are frequently tempted to cheat—in sports, for example, or in their after-school employment—but I've elected to look mainly at academic cheating because academic work is the equivalent in a boy's life to his parents' jobs. A student who habitually cheated in his schoolwork might find it less guilt-provoking to cheat in his adult work than he would if he had gone through school with academic integrity.

Boys are familiar with cheating well before they are tempted to practice it academically. They may have observed it or done it in family life—cheating in games in order to win, for example—or in play groups. They may have heard parents boast of successful cheating—on expense accounts or tax returns. Cheating is rife in adult life, from white-collar business fraud to falsified research data.

Exposure to cheating

My brother, Henry, is a high school social studies teacher. It was thus natural for me to turn to him first for information on academic cheating by boys today. According to Henry, cheating is prevalent in high school. He told me about a boy he observed using a crib sheet during the first exam of the past school year. Henry reacted with obvious enough indignation that the rest of the class immediately knew of the transgression and teased the student mercilessly for weeks. The academic penalty for the student was to get a grade of zero to begin the year's grading.

In Henry's school, there is no established school policy on cheating penalties—maybe a sign in itself that the school as an institution is uncertain how to deal with cheating. Each teacher has to use his own judgment. There is no written school code of academic and social behavior, nor are students regularly reminded of standards of behavior. It is assumed that "everyone knows" cheating is not permitted.

The happy fallout of the story is that Henry's student responded to the cheating exposure by buckling down to work; by June he was near the top of the class despite having his initial grade of zero averaged in. He became an exemplary student, not only successful in tests but impressive in classroom discussions.

Exposure embarrassing

Others might regard the embarrassing public exposure as contributing to the boy's change of direction, but Henry believes he would just as surely have changed course if Henry had handled the episode firmly but more discreetly—in other words, without shaming the boy publicly. Henry regrets his outburst when he discovered the crib sheet. It is better, he says, not to embarrass students deliberately. Peer status is everything to kids, he believes. The last thing a student wants is to be uncool. Though Henry didn't say so, perhaps what classmates considered socially uncool in this situation was that the student got caught, not that the student had attempted to cheat. A boy who cheats today does so as a member of a society in which appearances are often judged more harshly than underlying social realities. Adultery, for example, is reported by survey research to be a prevalent type of cheating. There is little evidence of public concern about adultery if it is effectively kept secret.

Every boy has to sort out for himself a set of inconsistent social cues that he is given beginning in childhood. One cue is that cheating is wrong, but other cues include the obvious fact that some people think it is more wrong than others do, that society as a whole regards some forms of cheating as morally worse than others, and that sometimes people are more scornful of getting caught than of the cheating offense itself. I don't think it is too exaggerated to say that there is a culture of dishonesty coexistent with a culture of integrity in our society. A boy who is tempted to cheat has many precedents from the culture of dishonesty to use as justification when he elects to cheat. Fortunately, he also has exposure to the culture of integrity that espouses good choices.

Another student came to see Henry late last year to ask about his grade average. Henry consulted his grading book and pointed out that the student had failed to turn in some written assignments, a factor that, if not remedied, would adversely affect his final grade. The student hurried off to complete the missing work. Then he went a step further. He graded the assignments himself (very highly) and tried to slip the papers into Henry's desk. Unwittingly, he used a different color of ink than Henry ever uses, so the cheating strategy was exposed.

Reactions to cheating can be intemperate and have unpredictable consequences. A female high school teacher spoke about getting caught cheating in an English lit course during her freshman year in college. She had plagiarized a published critique of a work for one of her reports, and her professor recognized the passages and knew their source.

The dean suspended her for a semester. He said of her cheating, "You've done well, but not well enough. We suspect you've done this kind of thing in all your classes." His suspicious accusations were untrue. She was deeply affected by the way a single incident had provoked a wholesale condemnation of her character.


The eighteenth-century philosopher, Jean Paul Richter, commented: "If a child tells a lie, tell him that he has told a lie, but don't call him a liar. If you define him as a liar, you break down his confidence in his own character."

I think his is profoundly wise advice. What the dean did to the student was to generalize her single offense and call her a cheater. She might have withdrawn from an academic career, or she might have developed a deep resentment of his unfair characterization of her and resolved to cheat more skillfully.

Fortunately, this student resolved to clear her reputation. After serving her suspension, she returned to the same college, graduated with honors, and now counsels all her high school students on the potential consequences of cheating. Her story is sobering, but is her experience the final word on cheating? How prevalent is cheating, and is it best handled with a punishment-as-deterrent policy?

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