As the cheating scandals at American schools and universities continue to unfold, waves of shock and disbelief are rippling through the sea of public consciousness. If your consciousness is being rippled, you have been ignoring repeated signs of a deeply troubled ethical compass within the American educational system.
Shame on you.
In the mid-twentieth century, educational authorities decided that academic integrity, educational ethics or professional integrity were no longer important curricula for our schools, colleges and universities. One reason for this shift was the successful propaganda that Science, Engineering and Math should take precedence over subjects like English, Philosophy, History, and the arts, despite that it is through these latter subjects that students learn how to think critically about moral and ethical questions. A second reason for the shift were the winners of the “values wars” who declared parents or clergy as the only people qualified to teach students integrity and ethics. A third reason was a growing reliance on standardized testing. (Unfortunately, ethics is difficult to test and thus, the reasoning goes, if we can’t test it, we shouldn’t teach it.)
The educational ethics scandals all over the country (e.g., at Harvard, Stuyvesant High School, Penn State) must convince us that it is a fallacy, and a harmful one at that, to insist that ethics and integrity have no place in our educational curricula. We should not believe that we can teach students to be scientists, engineers, accountants, lawyers, coaches, and other professionals without teaching them about professional integrity and ethics. We cannot just expect that students should “know better” because clearly some do not. And, we are naïve to believe that all parents can teach their children ethical decision reasoning, making or behavioral skills; after all, it is likely no one taught the parents either.
These scandals should also convince us that the problem of cheating in school (whether committed by students, parents, teachers or administrators) is a systemic problem that must be addressed in a systemic way. When there are repeated scandals around the country, all with similar characteristics and underlying causes, we are not simply facing a few situations of a few bad people behaving badly. Students, parents, teachers and administrators cheat because of the pressure for performance is applied without equal attention to the ethical means for achieving those ends. People cheat because of temptations and opportunities as well as a lack of structures and cultures that support ethical conduct. People cheat because our society rewards them for doing so; that is, at least, until they get caught. And then we blame them, not ourselves.
To be sure, even if the problem is systemic, individuals who cheat are to blame and should be held responsible for their actions. Despite the surrounding system, there is always a choice. So when people choose to cheat, we must communicate through behavioral consequences that they made the incorrect choice. (Education is also critical after-the-fact because, after all, people do learn best from their failures and there is certainly most useful learning to be gained from failing to act ethically).
However, it is not true that individuals who cheat “bear sole responsibility for their actions”, as Dr. Dan Brenner, the superintendent of the Rosyln School District in New York, contended (according to CBS New York). We are all to blame for these situations---the parents who raised them, the schools who taught them, the peers who looked the other way or refused to disclose what they knew, and the officials who created the structures, procedures and cultures that invited cheating to occur. As Penn State realized, the individual who perpetrated the act is not the only one to blame. We each operate as either facilitators or inhibitors of dishonest and unethical conduct. We do not operate within vacuums. Each time we act or speak (or refuse to act or speak) we influence each other and the environment around us.
It is time for the American society, parents and the educational system to turn the critical eye of condemnation on ourselves and realize that we are all to blame. Only then will we be able to make a true commitment to address the problem of cheating in our schools, colleges and universities.