College and the Cheating Culture

“I committed forgery,” begins an essay I found by chance online, “and changed my life.” It isn’t a long essay, just a short sketch that’s part of a larger project entitled “Bus Shelter Autobiographies” sponsored by The Autobiography Project. Short biographies of no more than 300 words were placed in bus shelters around Philadelphia back in 2006 in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday.

It isn’t a long essay, as I said, but I can’t stop thinking about it because it seems to me to sum up in its few short paragraphs everything that is wrong with contemporary American culture. The author came from a poor Hispanic background where women’s first duty was considered to be to the family and hence where women rarely went to college. The author was determined, however, to go to college and unwilling to wait until she could persuade her parents to support her in this ambition, or until she could pursue it without their support. So she purloined a copy of her parents’ tax return from “the box” where “all important papers were kept,” copied the information onto a financial aid form and practiced writing her mother’s signature until she could do it well enough to forge her mother’s signature on the form. 

As a result of this forgery, the author was awarded a full scholarship and hence “allowed” to go to college. She continued her education, she explains, until she had earned her Ph.D. Her mother never forgave her, she observes, and then adds somewhat cryptically at the end that “some crimes are greater than others.”

It isn’t clear what she means by that last remark. One can presume, however, that at least part of what she means was getting a college education and then an advanced degree was worth enduring her mother’s undying enmity. 

I can’t help but have some sympathy for the author. It’s a very painful thing for a young person to have ambitions that their parents don’t support. It’s even more painful when those ambitions relate to something that is almost universally valued in the culture for both its extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. 

And yet there is something deeply disturbing about the essay. It isn’t so much what the author did that’s disturbing. Young people often do things they later regret, things such as cheat on tests or forge their parents’ signatures on notes sent home by their teachers, things that could arguably be justified by appeal to some greater good such as ensuring a GPA that is competitive with those of young people from more economically advantaged backgrounds, or avoiding a vicious tongue lashing or even physical beating. 

Young people often bend moral rules in ways they later regret. What’s disturbing about the piece is not so much what the author did when she was young, but the attitude she takes toward it now. There’s no hint of contrition in the piece. No whiff of appeal for sympathy on the part of the reader for a young person who felt driven to behave in a way that society generally condemns. 

The author is clearly proud of her ingenuity, proud she didn’t allow what she clearly saw as a mere social convention rather than a universal moral prohibition of forgery to stand as an obstacle in her path of getting what she wanted when she wanted it.

The author’s action might have been more understandable, and arguably even morally defensible, if she’d had only that one chance to get into college. She didn’t have only that one chance to get into college, though. She could have tried harder to persuade her mother to let her go to college (she says nothing about her father so it seems safe to assume that if she had one he had no say in the matter). She could have gotten a job after high school and squirreled away enough money to pay for evening classes at the local community college. Or she could have used those same savings to finance an apartment for herself so that she could be financially independent of her parents and apply for aid on her own. 

It would have been unfair, in a sense, for the author to have had to pursue such means to get into college when other young people did not have to do this. It would at least have been honest, though.

I went to high school with a lot of kids who were in the same situation as the author, kids whose parents didn’t support their going to college. “I have to move out of my parents’ place,” they explained to me. “I have to live on my own for a year so that I can declare financial independence and apply for student aid on my own.”

Again, what concerns me about the essay, is not so much what the author did when she was a teenager, but her attitude toward that action now, now when she is an adult and presumably knows she had other more ethically defensible options for pursuing her dream of getting a college education and then an advanced degree. 

That isn’t the only aspect of the essay that’s disturbing. Cheating, as David Callahan points out in his excellent book The Cheating Culture, has become pervasive in American society. The author clearly expects her readers to applaud her action. An education is almost universally valued. Even if some people value it more than others and are willing to make greater sacrifices to pursue it, pretty much everyone would acknowledge that it is better to have a college education than not. Ideally, we should all have one, right? Does that mean that its okay to employ unethical means to get it even when there are other, ethical ways, of securing it?

If you are tempted to think of the author’s behavior as an act of civil disobedience, think again. The philosopher John Rawls defines “civil disobedience,” in his iconic text A Theory of Justice, as involving “a public” act “done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government,” and most moral and legal philosophers agree with him on the qualification of an act of civil disobedience as necessary public. In addition, civil disobedience is generally considered to be justified only as a last resort, defensible only after one has exhausted “all other legally available remedies” (Michael D. Bayles, “The Justifiability of Civil Disobedience,” Review of Metaphysics 24 (1970).

The author’s act was neither public, nor was it a last resort. It was a private, egoistically motivated act undertaken despite the existence of more ethically defensible options, for the sake of pure expediency.

The philosophy behind the bending of moral rules to achieve something that is widely recognized to be inherently good is referred to as “the end justifies the means.” That is, the attitude is that its okay to use ethically questionable means to achieve an inherently good end. The end retrospectively cleanses the means of any moral taint.  

This is obviously the attitude of parents who bribed college officials to admit their children into institutions into which it is unlikely they would otherwise have been admitted. Everyone knows that bribery is bad, bad that is, unless it can be used to serve some inherently good end such as helping to secure for one’s child a brighter future. The same reasoning applies, of course, to shopping around for a physician who will provide your child with an official medical diagnosis of a learning disability that would allow them more time than other young people on college entrance exams. 

The author might argue that she deserved to go to college, whereas the children whose parents bribed their way into better institutions than they would have been able to get into otherwise didn’t deserve to get into those institutions. There are two problems with that objection, however. First, the author clearly did not have to commit forgery to get into college. She had to commit forgery to get into college right after high school. Presumably, the scholarship she received would also have been extended to her a year later, if she had become financially independent of her parents and applied for aid on her own. 

The second problem concerns the ambiguity of desert. Many, if not even most, of the parents who bribed their children’s ways into elite institutions may well have thought their children deserved admittance to those institutions and, arguably, at least some of them may have been right. There’s a certain randomness to college admissions. Test scores are important, of course, but many students don’t do well on standardized tests. GPAs matter as well, but those can vary widely depending on where a child went to school and what teachers they had, and again, whether they suffer from test-taking anxiety that would result in a lower GPA than they would otherwise merit.

Finally, the randomness of the admissions process relates not only to the criteria by which applicants are evaluated, but also to those doing the evaluation. Judgments of merit have an irreducibly subjective element. Different admissions officials often evaluate the same applicant differently. It often happens that a young person will be admitted to Harvard, say, but not to Yale, to Princeton, say, but not to Swarthmore.

So whether someone deserves an advantage they gain by ethically questionable means is somewhat open-ended. What isn’t open-ended, I believe, is whether the advantage, that is the end, justifies the use of unethical means. 

The-end-justifies-the-means reasoning can be invoked to support all kinds of unethical behavior. It applies not only to committing forgery so that one doesn’t have to wait a year to go to college. It applies to using bribery to secure admittance to the institutions of one’s choice. It applies to cheating on tests, or hacking into your school’s computer system, in order to maintain a GPA that is sufficiently high to properly reflect what one assumes are one’s innate abilities.

The list goes on and on. The question is not what would be included in the list of actions that are prima facie unethical but which could be used as means to achieving some inherently desirable end. The question is what would be excluded. Are there limits? And if so, where are they? 

The Bolsheviks believed mass murder was defensible as a means to the end of bringing about a truly socialist society. We’d draw the line at mass murder, of course, but recent college admissions scandals illustrate that we’re having trouble drawing it otherwise. 

(An earlier version of this piece appears in the 12 October 2020 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch.)