Cheating culture

Dear colleagues,

Are we living in a "cheating culture"? A new book argues that the US has become one: David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2004).

Callahan gives many amazing examples to illustrate his argument that unbridled competition is causing more cheating, for example how auto repair fraud is promoted by a piecework policy, how lawyers overbill due to pressures inside law firms and how executive corruption results from increasing rewards for high-flyers. A major reason for cheating is that it is so seldom punished.

Callahan notes that there isn't sufficient data to show that cheating is increasing, but presents considerable case material to suggest that certain types are. He notes that although the religious right in the US takes the high ground in castigating moral decay, it neglects the damaging impact of unrestrained competition on social values, including the problems of "greed, envy, materialism, and inequality".

Things aren't as extreme in Australia as in the US, but the trends are in the same direction.

Callahan offers four strategies to challenge the cheating culture: better pay for those on lower incomes; more investment in higher education; more personal wealth; and greater job security. But he notes that these reforms will be hard to implement so long as market values dominate.

The book has a good section on student cheating. Noting that the problem has been around for many decades, Callahan refers to the recent work of Donald McCabe, who has found in surveys that 3/4 of university students confess to some form of cheating - a figure similar to that in the 1960s - but that today more serious cheating is occurring, with a one-third increase in the 1990s.

Callahan: "Business students are among those with the worst attitudes toward cheating, and those most likely to bring lax ethics into their professional lives. A 2001 study of 1,000 business students on six campuses found that 'students who engaged in dishonest behavior in their college classes were more likely to engage in dishonest behavior on the job'." (p. 219).

Callahan describes elite US high schools where cheaters thrive and those who speak out about it suffer reprisals. At the top public high school in Pittsburgh, Taylor Allerdice, a co-valedictorian was accused of cheating in Scholastic Achievement Tests. Many other students then came forward with stories of rampant cheating. The result? Those accused went to top universities and the initial whistleblower was harassed.

Back to universities: "Most academic cheating does, in fact, go unpunished. A consistent finding of the research on academic cheating is that there are few consequences for those suspected of cheating. In a 1999 survey of 1,000 faculty at twenty-one colleges, a third of professors said they were aware of cheating in their classes but didn't stop it. ... Many professors would rather let cheaters slide than take on the bureaucratic hassles of pursuing disciplinary actions. Others are afraid of lawsuits filed by the parents of cheaters. ... Stuart Gilman, president of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C., recalls an episode from his days as a college professor. 'I had a student who handed in an unsatisfactory paper. The dean then begged me to give him a ten-day extension. Then he handed it in (this is the day before graduation) and it was plagiarized. It had nothing to do with the topic, and I felt like I had read it somewhere. It turns out it was an article in the American Political Science Review. I failed him. The course was a departmental requirement to graduate in political science. I was at graduation and I saw him there. I thought, "Oh that's nice, they let him come." But then he came over to me and said he was actually graduating even though he had failed my course, because they had waived the requirement for him.' Gilman later learned from the dean why the student had been allowed to graduate: 'The student's father had just given a million-dollar contribution toward a new building on campus'." (pp. 229-230).

Don't assume that it couldn't - or hasn't - happened in Australia!

Brian Martin
21 August 2005

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