Several weeks ago, one of our staff members sat down outside his math classroom to take a make-up test. After some minutes of work, an anonymous girl walked by, surreptitiously dropping a folded sheet of paper on his desk and without a word of identification, walked away. Not knowing what to do, he quickly shoved the paper in his backpack, but later saw that written on the paper were the girl’s neatly organized class notes, which included every single necessary formula for the test.
In its many forms, academic dishonesty is firmly entrenched in the culture of Stuyvesant High School. If you walk down any hallway in the building you are almost guaranteed to see students copying homework, sharing questions on tests or “loosely paraphrasing” another student’s work on labs. Take-home tests, when they are given, degenerate quickly into answer-sharing free-for-alls. In one example, a teacher who had attended the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), an institution famous for its honor code, gave students in his AP class—students who are theoretically genuinely interested in learning the material being taught—a take- home exam of the kind he was given in college. Sure enough, while some students chose to take the exam without outside help, the majority of students shared answers with one another, clearly violating the teacher’s trust.
Even our AP classes, which only enroll students who have expressed a desire to take the course, are filled with instances of academic dishonesty, raising questions about how Stuyvesant students will behave when accepted into elite universities, such as Caltech, which use the honor system. A good student must also be a good citizen, and act with integrity in all his academic pursuits. Despite how prevalent this behavior is, we are rarely caught or made accountable for our actions. We as a student body are considered to be some of the “best and the brightest” in New York City, if not the nation, and yet, often our high grades reflect not our hard work and academic aptitude, but rather our willingness to cheat, lie and game the system.
The question, of course, is why. What is it about our school and our students that seems to breed contempt for integrity and motivate us to cheat? Who and what is ultimately to blame?
The tired, knee-jerk response to these questions is that it is the cut-throat, competitive nature of Stuyvesant that encourages this behavior. The school is predicated on a student body selected solely based on exemplary performance on the highly-competitive Specialized High School Admissions Test. Every student who walks through the second floor entrance on his first day of freshman year has out-competed thousands of other students for the privilege to do so. Furthermore, a large number of the students at Stuyvesant earned their privilege with the help of preparatory classes, constituting what some would argue is an unfair advantage. This argument may have a modicum of truth to it—we come to Stuyvesant hungry for success, and are willing to use unorthodox measures to attain it—but is ultimately inadequate in describing the fundamental motivations for academic dishonesty at our school.
Academic dishonesty stems from a profound lack of respect in our school community, as well as a sense of combative division between students and the faculty and administration. We are a school that puts far more emphasis on the quantitative value of numbers and statistics than on the importance of learning and knowledge. The work assigned in many classes reflects this approach to education. Busywork assignments asking students to perform onerous tasks, such as copying down physics problems verbatim from a Regents review book, send a clear message that deep, conceptual understanding of material is worthless when compared to high scores on a standardized test. This type of assignment completely disrespects the material being taught, and ultimately insults students’ academic skills. The same can be said of pop-quizzes given in English classes—the administration of which shows that the teacher does not respect or trust his or her students. These quizzes encourage students to read books through alternate sources such as Spark Notes because of the implicit message sent by the quiz: it is more valuable to memorize facts about the book like the names of characters or important events than to actually read and form one’s own interpretations of the text.
Some teachers will even go so far to disrespect the subject they are teaching by reading their classes questions from the departmental finals in order to “prepare” their students. This devalues the material being taught in the course, and essentially an entire semester of study. We are some of the best and most capable students in New York City, and we deserve assignments that challenge us to think critically and analytically as opposed to ones that simply test our mental endurance and ability to regurgitate facts.
This implicit disrespect fosters the kind of “us against them attitude” that motivates academic dishonesty. Students feel so victimized by the amount of assignments they receive, the tenor of their assignments and the constant fear of quantitative evaluation that they resort to academic dishonesty as an act of desperation. It is a well known and unsurprising fact that the classes which assign heavier, less analytical workloads are the classes in which students are more likely to cheat. Students in morning classes will provide later periods with answers to a test despite the fact that their answers will help those students score higher than they will themselves. This is not the behavior of students who seek to relentlessly out-compete their classmates. This is instead an act of communal resistance—a non-verbal way of saying “we’re all in this together.” Copying homework or sharing answers to a test, while undeniably wrong, become minor acts of rebellion against a course and school that has devalued learning and analytical thought.
Although academic dishonesty seems inevitable, to an extent, in any high school community, there are things that can be done to foster a less vicious and more respectful environment. Teachers should eliminate busywork and rote memorization from their curriculum because most students have shown, through copying at least one homework assignment, that they reject this type of instruction. Assignments and exams that test a student’s ability to analyze and apply concepts are not only harder to copy, they also communicate to students that this is meaningful work that should be taken seriously. In a similar vein, the volume of work assigned by all classes should be decreased. A constant flood of work devalues the effort that students put into their assignments, and the exhaustion brought on by sleep deprivation causes students to copy work that, if they had time, they would complete. Fewer assignments with more emphasis on analysis would remove the sense of meaningless obligation (and often legitimacy for copying) that many students feel towards many of their assignments.
Finally, teachers must make academic dishonesty a constant part of the dialogue in class. Simple measures that have been adapted by some teachers in the school, including non-cheating pledges on exams that are administered, can help remind students that academic dishonesty is a serious transgression that poisons the learning environment. Constant re-enforcement also prevents some students from falling into the morally relativistic trap of thinking that their academic dishonesty is justified because all of their classmates are engaging in the behavior as well.
We, the students, also have great responsibility when it comes to curbing academic dishonesty. Far too often, students copy work or cheat on tests simply because it is easier to do so than to actually invest the time and effort necessary to earn good grades with integrity. If the culture of the school is to be reformed so as to create an environment antithetical to cheating, we as the student body must do our part and resolve to rise to the intellectual challenges presented by our teachers with full moral rectitude, and ostracize those who refuse to change their ways.
By shifting our school’s focus from quantifiable, statistical achievement towards a more humanistic emphasis on analysis and critical thought, we can help eliminate the “us versus them” mentality that is at the root of many instances of academic dishonesty. If students are made to feel as though they are respected by their teachers and that they are a part of a wider community, they will hold themselves to higher standards of conduct and behavior. Of course, there will always be those who under any circumstances are willing to lie and cheat their way to the top of the meritocracy, but in a respectful, learning-based Stuyvesant High School, they will not have a leg to stand on.