A 19-year-old college student was recently arrested for a uniquely modern crime: Using fake IDs, he took the SAT for 6 other students. Had he not been caught, things would have worked out great—his average score was a 2100 out of 2400, enough to get some of these less gifted but enterprising students considered at better colleges.
The incident itself has happened before—there have been SAT cheating scandals every 5 years or so. What took my breath away was the reaction of other students and even the adults interviewed in news stories about the case. NBC News, for example, featured quotes from two students not involved in the scandal. One said, "If they have the money on hand, and I guess they can, like they have the opportunity, it's just not that surprising." In other words, of course they would cheat if they could get away with it—why not? The other student mentioned how difficult it is to get into a good college: "I feel it's really competitive and it's really hard." So: The ends justify the means.
Here's where I expected at least one dissenting voice to say cheating is not the way to success—or, I don't know, wrong.
But what did the adults interviewed in the story have to say? Pedro Noguera, Professor of Teaching and Learning, New York University, noted, "I think the pressure on students right now to get into really good schools is really great. The students who get into elite universities have a better chance to get into elite graduate schools, which means they have a better chance to get into high-paying jobs later on. So there's a lot at stake, and they understand it." Once again, the ends justify the means, and let's do whatever it takes to get ahead.
The last adult interviewed was the accused student's lawyer, who of course had to come up with some excuse. But I think he could have been a lot less lame than "Even if something happened it happened within school grounds and it was when they were underage. It should be handled administratively within the school." Right, because cheating on a national test that's used for admission to colleges across the country doesn't affect anybody outside of the school.
I wish this were an isolated example. Apparently, it's not, according to a large and in-depth study done by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and reported in his new book, Lost in Transition. Smith and his colleagues report widespread moral relativism, and what they call "moral individualism," among Americans age 18 to 23. I will let the interviewees speak for themselves:
Q: Is it okay to break moral rules if it works to your advantage and you can get away with it? A: Break moral rules? I'm sorry, what do you mean by moral rules? I would have to say in some cases, yeah, it would be okay. It just, it would really depend what those rules were. It's on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something? A: I really don't think there're any good reasons, nope, nothing. Q: What if someone just wasn't interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not? A: No, I don't see why that would be a problem. Q: And why is that? A: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we're here for? I mean, they can help themselves. ... Q: So if someone asks for help, we don't have an obligation to them? A: Yeah, it's up to each individual, of course.
The end result: Everything is up to the individual. If things are competitive, and it will help me get ahead, why not cheat? There are no rules, and who cares about how it affects anyone else?
And yes, this bares a striking resemblance to narcissism. Sure enough, there is a link between narcissistic personality and cheating in school.
So what can we do? First, we clearly need to get across to children and adolescents that there are some moral rules that need to be followed. We don't cheat, we don't steal, and we don't hurt others—no, not even if there's benefit in doing so. The rules needn't be absolute, and they needn't be arbitrary, but it is good, not bad, to tell young people that something is wrong. Just plain wrong.
We also have to fight this idea that the competitive nature of the world justifies self-centeredness and cheating—because that's not winning. It's losing.