One hundred percent of my youth are students and I do my very best to talk to them often about how school is going. I listen to the endless list of projects and homework they struggle with and sometimes I wonder how they manage to get everything done and keep up with all their other activities. While very few students I know have been caught or confessed to cheating, I know it happens. Last summer the New York Times reported that 61% of students in undergraduate programs have admitted to some form of cheating. I imagine this number would hold true for high school as well. Recently there have been several pieces in the media that relate back to academic cheating and plagiarism, a topic I feel I don’t address nearly enough with my students.
Late in the fall, Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Auburn football team and recipient of the Heisman Trophy, was accused of academic cheating. Newton spent his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Florida and during that time allegedly cheated in class, turning in papers that weren’t his three different times. Before he was required to face the Florida Student Conduct Committee, which could have suspended or expelled him, he transferred to another college for his junior year and then moved to Auburn for his senior year. During the Heisman selection process, many people expressed concern that he should be held accountable to these accusations from years before.
Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article written by a man who writes custom papers for students. For a price, he will write any paper you need; simply send him the details of what the teacher or professor requires and he will churn it out for you by the deadline. He makes a decent living writing papers in nearly every area of academics, taking entire online classes for students, and even writing work for students in Ph.D. programs. The work is unique and so difficult to spot by teachers. He even includes mistakes so it won’t look overly professional. He was honest about his role in this type of cheating, but also pointed fingers at an academic system that didn’t support their students and that allows poor students to turn in work far above their capability without question. In a startling moment in his article, he even mentions that he has done work for students in seminaries, who apparently find it acceptable to pay for a paper that promotes Biblical moral values.
There is more than one issue at play here. As we’ve talked about before, students are pushed to achieve earlier and earlier. At the same time, students spend more time typing a form of shortened and broken English that gives them less and less practice with proper English. Advancements in technology have made plagiarism and cheating easier and easier, for example students can text each other answers or find papers of all sorts online for a small fee. All of these and more combine to make students believe that the way to get ahead is by taking the easy way out.
I think many of our students have the same attitude as expressed by those who support Cam Newton or who make a living doing other people’s homework: It is not wrong to cheat unless you get caught. As long as students can get away with copying homework, or borrowing a paper without ramification, it seems as though it is a victimless crime. Yet, by cheating the students are shortchanging themselves, and setting a pattern of sinful behavior that can follow them around for the rest of their lives.
On the flip side, I have to imagine that students who resort to cheating are plagued with feelings of shame and regret. It is easy to get sucked into cheating, and once you have started, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get out. It takes great courage and strength to confess and deal with the consequences of this kind of behavior. We may also need to speak the words of Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
As Christians we are called to call this exactly what it is, lying. It is easy for the world to play down the impact of this type of behavior, but we should be calling our students to be honest and do their own work. One way our students can be a Christ-like light in the darkness of their schools is to say no to any form of cheating and plagiarism, and to encourage their friends who would take the easy way out. I want to create an environment where students can be honest about the stresses of school and find support that allows them to succeed without having to lie and deceive. When it is necessary, I want to remind my students of God’s great grace and mercy when we fall short, and help them in a loving way to deal with the consequences. It is our place not only to encourage students to be honest, but to provide them with the love, encouragement, and the reminder of God’s forgiveness they need to do the God-pleasing thing.