In Defense of CheatingS

You know what I hate? Cheating. Cheating is shitty, and people shouldn't cheat. But you know what I don't hate? Also cheating! Cheating is great sometimes, and super helpful. I'm specifically talking about academic cheating, but the same applies to cheating in general—cheating hurts people, and it hurts the cheater, and it sucks. Except...when it doesn't.

In a New York Times mommy column today, Michelle Blake laments the way that parental pressure can drive kids to cheat:

I taught university classes for many years, and in my experience students don't decide to cheat because they don't know better. They cheat, as my high school buddy said, because they've imbibed the message—from parents, from peers, from schools—that looking successful is more important than being honest. They cheat because they have been taught, however unwittingly, that it is worth it.

...Of course, there are many contributing causes. But I immediately thought of another recent flurry of stories—about the demands we privileged parents make on our children these days, demands to appear successful (at any cost?) and thus, let's face it, make us appear successful. As a result, we seem to be raising unhappy children.

We also seem to be raising confused children who can't tell the difference, as my high-school friend put it, between appearance and reality. When we "edit" (or co-author) their college application essays, we deprive them of faith in their own abilities. When we allow them to lie on their résumés, we tell them it is more important that they get into the right college than that they do the right thing. Without meaning to, we send the message that lying and cheating are acceptable ways to make good grades and get ahead in life.

It's not that I disagree, exactly. I do think that letting privileged kids cheat the system to get ahead encourages dangerous levels of entitlement. But it's so much more complicated than "cheating = bad; honesty = good; overbearing parents = bad; perfect-mystery-ingredient-parents = good." The older I get, the clearer it becomes that pretty much nothing is binary. Everything is contextual. It's not like I'm a "good feminist" and Sarah Palin is a "bad feminist" and that's all there is to it—we both exist on a continuum (there are people who are "better" than me, and Michele Bachmann is clearly "worse" than Palin). That's why "White dudes go to the store like this; black dudes go to the store like this" is fucking nonsense, because everybody goes to the store in varying degrees of "like this." And I'm sure Hitler loved his dog, or whatever. The world is gray.

It's the same with cheating. When I was in high school and time was crunched, my friends and I took turns passing around our math worksheets, because math worksheets were—to a certain extent—bullshit. But I would never have cheated on a test or bought a term paper online. Some forms of "cheating" are actually more akin to savvy time management—it can be just a disparaging term for "efficiency." Some cheating is about determining which bullshit counts and which doesn't, and then cutting out the bullshit bullshit. A lot of school is bullshit. And I feel like a big part of a high school and college education is learning how to navigate around bullshit. Because it's bullshit. You know?

So cheating isn't binary. Identifying shortcuts and successfully taking them is useful. Deliberately misleading people, setting up false expectations about yourself, and creating substantial fabrications is disgusting. If I'm up for a writing job that I desperately want, and somebody else gets the job, and I find out that they cheated on a math test in high school, I don't give a shit. But if I find out that they plagiarized half their portfolio, I'm pissed. Frankly, as soon as you figure out that there are different types of cheating, and some of them are harmless, new paths open up all over the place. I'm a stickler for ethics and fairness—I will not abide line-cutting and I fucking HATE IT when undeserving weasels get away with shit—but I just can't conceive of cheating as a black-and-white issue. Yell at me if you want. You know you do it too.

And as for Blake's contention that overbearing parents are creating cheaters willy-nilly, maybe so. I don't know. But I do know plenty of cheaters who had shitty, absent parents, and I know plenty of overachievers who had parents with rigid expectations. So I hesitate to condemn any parent for something so benign and well-meaning as expecting good grades out of their kid. Parenting is about a personal relationship with your children. Parenting, like cheating, isn't binary. I'd prefer to focus on making sure my kids have a healthy ethical foundation, so they can tell the good cheating from the bad cheating. It just might be helpful down the line.