A young college professor who was returning home late one night decided to pick up some examination papers at his office. Noticing a light in the office window, he quietly opened the front door of the building and ran up the steps. His office door was open and his desk in confusion. Following a hunch he went up another flight, to find a student crouched sheepishly on the landing. The student admitted entering the office to search for the final examination. His pleas for leniency affected the professor sufficiently for him to decide to forgive the student. Whereupon the student thrust out his hand and said in a satisfied tone, “Then it’s a deal? You won’t tell anyone?” The gesture grated on the professor. He felt that the ease with which the student was willing to shake on the “deal” suggested something of the ease with which he would forget the incident. He therefore determined to report the student.

However, in the weeks that followed the professor found his moral enthusiasm flagging. The administration hesitated to take action, and the professor began to wonder about his decision: both the ambiguous propriety of “squealing” and the spontaneous quality of his original decision seemed to cast doubt on the reality of his moral fervor. Eventually the student was punished, but the professor never again played apprehender.

This incident and its sequel have become symbolic to me of the attitude of students, faculty, and administration toward cheating in college. Two news stories have startled me into remembrance of this scene: the account of the 105 students who left the Air Force Academy for either cheating or failing to report cheating, and a more recent article appearing in the Philadelphia Bulletin (February 7, 1965) that discusses cheating in Philadelphia colleges. In the second story, the reporter found that 80 of the 124 students interviewed admitted to cheating—over 60 per cent! There can be no doubt of the prevalence of cheating.

But other factors are equally distressing. One is the amoral attitude of the cheaters. The Bulletin found that some of the people interviewed did not consider handing in ghost-written papers to be cheating. I have found that many of my students feel no pangs of conscience over plagiarism; as a rule they see the problem as a simple punctuation error—the mere omission of quotation marks. No moral struggle appears to precede the copying of a theme from the fraternity file; remorse apparently comes only if the student is caught.

Allied to this lack of sensitivity is the sniggering admiration accorded cheaters. Even faculty members regale one another with anecdotes about students’ coming to examinations with tape recorders cleverly disguised as hearing aids, formulas written inside matchbook covers, even radio transmitters concealed in hats. It is taken for granted that students must be frisked before tests, that no books may be allowed in the examination room, and that vigilant proctors must patrol the aisles. Efforts to set up an honor system often call forth the hackneyed response, “Yes, the faculty has the honor and the students have the system.”

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Striking evidence of moral laxity pervading faculty attitudes toward cheating may be seen in the Van Doren television quiz scandal, but more common examples may be readily found in our schools of education, which produce a large number of our teachers and which are just as plagued with cheating as other colleges. The frequent explanation is that the pressure for higher degrees forces teachers into questionable practices, such as paying ghost-writers to produce theses.

This too seems part of the pattern. The students complain that they are forced to cheat because of home pressures—that their families demand more of them than they are able to produce honestly. Or they blame the faculty: professors are said to be either excessive in their demands or reprehensible in their teaching and examination techniques. It seems to be an axiom that any teacher who repeats assignments or examination questions deserves to have students cheat. Furthermore, if the teacher cannot motivate the student, or if the administration requires dreary or difficult courses, then each reaps the fruits of his iniquity. The shifting of responsibility to other shoulders—the family, the faculty, the peer group, or our modern, mechanized, dehumanized civilization—shows up as a frighteningly frequent part of the pattern in any survey of cheating. And equally frightening is the fact that teachers and families accept this responsibility. The student seldom needs to face the blame alone.


I am so weary, Lord.

I hear their laughter. Young and gay.

Mocking my heaviness.

What is life to them?

What do they know of sweat and tears?

Of a lonely heart torn by grief and fears?

I am so weary, Lord.

They come to me day by day,

Shattering my serenity.

How can I be strong, Lord?

Such a frail thing is life.

Ashes and dust.

“To dust return,” he said.

What can I do, Lord?

Brush a tear.

Speak a word.

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Breathe a prayer.

So futile.

So tired, Lord. I cannot go on.

The muck and the mire. Too high.

I cannot bear my burdens, Lord.

And still they come.

Help me, Lord, or I sink.

Help me, Lord.

Help me.


There are undoubtedly as many reasons for cheating as there are cheaters. Certainly, for many students home pressures are more influential than the ideal of academic honesty. Just as clearly, an atmosphere of moral laxity makes extenuating circumstances seem more plausible. Nor has the administrative handling of cheating called great attention to the moral issue. For one thing, administrations tend to be timid about handling cheating cases. The issue is generally reduced to a conflict between the student’s word and the faculty member’s. Even in a clear case of cheating, the professor finds it easier to fail the student than to go through the endless inquiries of administrative procedure. The administration has an understandable fear of litigation; a suit for defamation of character can do considerable damage to the reputation and finances of a university. When a student is found guilty of cheating, the university may be overly considerate of damaging his record permanently. So, in some colleges, a student is sent home but allowed to re-enroll later; or he may be dismissed with no comment placed in his file to damage his chances of entering another college. The attitude seems to be that college students are nothing more than children, not responsible for their peccadillos.

None of this is hard to understand, and we can easily make out a good case for leniency. In a day that is seeing the steady corrosion of absolute standards of morality, cheating must be one of the lesser sins, hastily committed and quickly forgiven.

Even more pertinent is the intellectual laziness of many college students. The search for snap courses offering instant education, the insistence on the professor’s being amusing, the wrath aroused by demands for high-quality performance and hard work, all point to disintegration of the ideal of a liberal education. The masses of students are at college for training, not for education. Many balk at any kind of knowledge that is not clearly utilitarian. The social and professional significance of the college degree is producing an ever-increasing army of non-intellectual—or even anti-intellectual—college attenders.

The grade received in a course is considered significant, not as it evaluates work done, but as it relates to the prospective professional value of the student’s record. Or the student may beg for a higher grade to keep his scholarship or to stay on the football team.

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As an English teacher, I am more concerned with the problem of plagiarism than are teachers in most of the other disciplines. After spending my weekend grading themes, or my Christmas vacation grading term papers, I feel cheated to think that this time may have been devoted to papers written by hired hacks, girlfriends, or grandmothers. Faith in the integrity of the writer is essential to any evaluation of his composition. The suspicion of dishonesty destroys much of the value of the corrections and breaks rapport with the class. Nothing is more embarrassing to a teacher than accusing a student of cheating. No day is more unpleasant than the one of the perennial lecture on the necessity of academic honesty and the perils of apprehension for dishonesty—a lecture that is an indispensable part of a freshman English course.

I hope that there is some broad answer to this problem. Granted, there are institutions (notably Princeton and the University of Virginia) where through long tradition the honor system really works; but they are few. For the generality of our colleges and universities, the answer to cheating has yet to be found. Perhaps only the automatic bestowal of a B.A. on every student who sits in classes could relieve the colleges of the hordes of young men and young women who want education without labor. In a time that boasts a plethora of programs designed to flood the universities with unwilling scholars, a plea for smaller quantity and greater quality is quickly swallowed up with shibboleths about human rights. The chances for limiting most universities to the intellectual aristocracy are about as slim as the chances for reforming the whole moral tenor of our age. Nor is there much likelihood that college administrators will soon be converted to the belief that cheating is as perilous to the college ideal as alcoholism, homosexuality, or anarchism. The only real ground for optimism that I see is that 44 out of those 124 students in Philadelphia colleges don’t cheat. May their tribe increase!

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