News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, December 1, 2008

The myth of competition

A potentially more insidious bit of news than the 190 people gunned down in Mumbai and the eight gunned down in Juarez, Mexico, one of my old haunts, was the story about 64 percent of high school students saying they had cheated on tests, 36 percent said they had plagiarized from the Internet, and 30 percent said they had stolen from stores.

This information came from surveys conducted in classrooms containing 29,760 students. You have to take their answers with belts of tequila and liberal grains of salt. Kids of high school age find it hilarious to respond to intrusive questions about their personal attributes with answers designed to put the fatuously righteous into frenzies of tongue-clucking indignation. They aren't alone. When a researcher administered a questionnaire to students at a campus where I worked probing their sexual habits, they made up tales of innovation, agility, and endurance that astounded the researcher and kept the students amused for years.

The same thing happened when anthropologists interviewed Native Americans about their lifestyles. You want wildness, the Indians would say to themselves, I'll give you wildness. They were so annoyed by the persistent intrusions of one famous collector of data that they made up a myth that found itself a featured presentation at the Smithsonian. While the researcher pompously presented his findings, the Indians laughed and giggled and chortled--for generations.

So when one presumes to ask questions on a survey that probes private areas of people's lives, be aware that the respondents will give the researchers what they seem to want and then sit back and giggle at their inventions and at the dupes who so dutifully report them.

Nevertheless, the two-thirds of students who say they have cheated on tests and the the third that claims to have plagiarized off the Internet do reflect an attitude toward scholarly dishonesty, if not a true portrayal of dishonest acts committed. I have caught a majority of students in classes cheating. It takes extra work but it is not hard to devise a testing strategy that exposes the cheaters. And we used to call the research paper season the annual plagiarism festival.

Some students plagiarize because they are slovenly about the rules of documentation and paraphrase. Requiring that they submit their drafts to editing panels of their peers eliminates much of that, and computers have made such reviews a quick and efficient process. Others plagiarize with every intention of submitting someone else's work as their own. The underlying problem is that our culture demeans scholarship and intellectual integrity as the fixations of irrelevant teachers and nerds. Schooling is largely regarded as a hazing process designed to impose boredom on lively young minds. That explains why 93 percent of the students surveyed saw nothing wrong in the cheating they admitted to. It is all just a game, and the object is to see what you can get by with.

Students see examples of cheating everyday. When No Child Left Behind tests were instituted, multiple instances of cheating on the part of school administrations were uncovered. One district in Houston was even giving workshops for teachers on how to insure that the students under their charge got respectable scores. The educators feared low test scores more than being found out as cheaters.

We have adopted a simple-minded dogma that the world is divided into two classes: winners and losers. Nobody wants to be a loser, someone who does not rank at the top with test scores and any other enterprise that ranks humans. Gaining knowledge and working hard is for losers. Just ask any CEO involved in our economic crash. They may be incompetent, ignorant, and totally self-serving. But they are winners. And that's all that counts.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States