By the time I arrived for my "Family and Community" class, I still was reeling from the results of a survey I'd just seen. A poll of more than 3,000 students listed in "Who's Who Among High School Students" -- the cream of our scholastic crop -- revealed that 80 percent had engaged in academic cheating and thought cheating was commonplace. Moreover, most saw cheating as a minor infraction.
Surely this couldn't be correct, I thought.
But close to half of my Duke University students (encouragingly less than 80 percent) acknowledged some high school cheating, though all of them insisted they'd outgrown the practice since they had entered college. I decided to spend the bulk of the period talking about it, and the result was one of the more interesting classes of the semester.
We began with a discussion of honor codes and their enforcement: stiff codes, such as the University of Virginia's, where students are required to report any cheating they observe and name the cheaters on pain of expulsion; softer codes such as Duke's, which requires students to report infractions but permits them, under some circumstances, to do so anonymously; or lax codes that amount to a no-cheating policy statement that says, in effect, don't get caught.
Most of the class -- predictably -- chose the middle ground. Nearly all said they would have walked away from a stolen answer sheet rather than use it to boost their college-entry SAT scores. Only a handful said they would have gone all the way and told school authorities what was being done and by whom. On the other hand, most said they were likelier to report cheating that put them at a competitive disadvantage.
The attitude toward reporting -- and to a serious degree toward cheating -- turned out to be remarkably pragmatic. Do it, or don't do it, because it works -- to make life more fair, more comfortable, more predictable.
Then came what was for me the interesting part. The class was after all about community -- about understanding and strengthening the institution that, along with family, is the foundation on which our society rests.
So I asked which sort of community they'd rather live in: one in which nearly everyone adhered to the highest ethical standards or one that embraced a live-and-let-live attitude. They were almost unanimous in preferring the high-standard community.
"You'd want neighbors with higher ethical standards than your own?" I asked. They would but also thought it likely that they'd raise their own standards to meet the community norm. "And also lower them to meet that norm?" They weren't sure, but fitting in did seem to count for something; isn't that what standards are about?
Then I asked them to imagine they had come up with a foolproof way of counterfeiting money. Would they be tempted? Not enough to ruin the economy, of course. Just, say, $100,000 in undetectable counterfeit. You could pay off your college loans, help out the family, get the jalopy fixed . . . and then destroy the plates. After all, you're no career criminal. Who would get hurt? Your family's better off, your debts are paid, the mechanic has a job he wouldn't have had. Maybe the trickle-down effect of your clever counterfeiting improves the local community.
And no one would do it. Ethics, they decided, wasn't only about pragmatism and getting along. Personal integrity mattered for its own sake. Who would be hurt? They would, they agreed.
I'm not alleging major epiphany in a single afternoon. Many of my students remain ambivalent (and unbelievably honest) about the temptation to lower their ethical standards, particularly in settings where lower standards are the norm. And if 80 percent of the brightest and best own up to cheating, those lower standards are the norm.
Nor is this some personal discovery of mine. Donald McCabe, the Princeton professor who conducted the survey that launched our discussion, is the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, a consortium of some 200 colleges and universities (including Duke, where the center is based). This group is exploring ways not merely to reverse the rising tide of academic cheating and plagiarism, but, more important, to get students to embrace high ethical standards as a matter of personal integrity.
It won't be easy, as McCabe's survey makes clear. But it's hard to think of anything more worth whatever effort it will take.