Cheating at school exams

I just happened to land on this post about the prevalence of cheating in school exams. Somehow, I had forgotten about this particular aspect of school life and the numbers came as a shock even though they shouldn’t have. From the post

According to a private research, 68% of middle class students and 75% of high school students cheats in general during exams. Why cheating is so high? We talk of controlling corruption, where the root lay? The only way to find out the root of the problem is to analyze this problem from the standpoint of a student. What rational he uses to decide whether to cheat or not?
(bad grammar in original)

From my own experience those numbers seem about right – perhaps on the lower side which is not surprising given that not everyone who cheats will admit to cheating. Most of my classmates at school cheated. I would put the figure at around 80% of the boys (I don’t know what the figure was among the girls – I suspect it would be significantly lower). It was considered helping each other. The few students who did not allow others to copy were regarded as selfish – particularly in middle school (5th – 7th standard). Even I succumbed to the pressure to allow “friends” to copy answers from my answer sheets in middle school. I did get over that by high school though – partly because I grasped that cheating does not in fact help anybody and partly because the pressure to allow others to cheat was lower in high school – a no cheating stand was not looked down on as selfish (I certainly was a long way away from grasping that selfishness is a virtue at this point).

The surprising thing is that those numbers are not as bad as they seem. In junior college, I was in a section of students who were all preparing for IIT JEE. I don’t know anyone there who cheated or even copied assignments. Ironically, this honesty did not last in IIT itself. There were atleast a few cases of cheating in IIT exams. Copying of assignments was routine.

I am glad that I never copied an assignment or an answer in an exam, but the variation of the prevalence of copying matches very well with my own estimate of the importance of those exams. Even though I was under some pressure from my parents to study and excel (in terms of marks and rank) in school, I always knew that most of the exams and half the subjects (Hindi, Social Studies and Biology in particular) were of no importance to me. In junior college, on the other hand, everyone knew that the competition was fierce and one had to do one’s best to get into a good college. The goal was worthy and the studies were interesting. I put in disciplined and sustained efforts in those two years – I have never worked with that sort of discipline before or after that. I think the same is true of most of my friends as well. In IIT, I still had some pressure (self-imposed) to do well (in terms of grades) but atleast half the courses in each semester were boring. Most of the assignments seemed pointless.

My reading of the trend seems to be that students copy when they do not care – either about the studies or about the significance in their own lives. The prevalence of cheating is an indicator of how poorly designed the education system is (of course, that is hardly a novel conclusion!). More importantly, it indicates that most people (atleast in my generation) have no intrinsic respect for abstract principles like honesty. While self-interest tends to make people honest (as in junior college), in situations where there is no immediate self-interest (having to study courses in engineering when you want to get into finance or consulting), there is no incentive for honesty. My generation does not believe in virtues or principles or philosophy – only in concrete results. If honesty pays, they will be honest; if it seems pointless, they don’t give a damn. They call it being pragmatic. What they don’t realize is that by not believing in any philosophy, they have never developed any identity and so their behavior is determined by the world around them. They are driven entirely by incentives, not by motives. All that someone has to do to enslave this generation is to arrange the incentives conveniently. It has always cracked me up when people write that this generation is going to reform India, because it is pragmatic and not dogmatic. After thinking through this post, this reform thing cracks me up even more. This generation is the most malleable ever in the last few decades.

Sach Ka Saamna (Facing the truth)

Today’s supplement to the Times Of India carries a column by Vinita Nangia on the controversial TV show ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. Ironically the lesson Nangia draws from the show (as do many others) is

Facing the truth isn’t all that easy and some truths are best left unsaid. Each one of us has a dark side that is best left hidden from others; revealing our dark secrets can do nothing but cause harm to loved ones. As a young lady puts it succinctly, “There’re skeletons in every cupboard, and we shouldn’t rattle them!” Another adds, “Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t have a dark deed festering somewhere in his heart?”

This is bound to destroy a lot of relationships… simply because more questions will be asked… and more truths served up on a platter! Thankfully, we all have a choice — stop watching or at least stop trying to lift the veils of illusion; believe me, it is sure to backfire miserably…
(Emphasis mine)

I should note that I haven’t watched the show yet, nor do I intend to do so. I have no interest in the private lives of random strangers. But the concept of the show (from what I have read of it) is fascinating in the context of today’s culture. This is obvious from the attention the show has got. It is worth analyzing the issues that the show raises.

The show is about facing the truth about one’s emotions and actions and whether these are consistent with one’s consciously or implictly held value system. An emotion is an automatic reaction. It is determined by one’s values. If one’s emotions are not consistent with one’s values, it means that one’s value system is not consistent with itself. In any situation where one’s value system clashes with itself, there is bound to be conflict. It is not surprising that people act badly when they are in conflict. What the show reveals is that its participants and audience – judging by their reaction – are very often in conflict about a lot of very important aspects of their lives. And worse, that this conflict is usually brushed under the carpet by repressing one’s emotions or by indulging them stealthily.

By bringing this conflict into the open, the show has disturbed a lot of people. That is good. It is good that people are concerned about the truth. But the concern will not be of much use if it does not lead one to question its cause – the inconsistencies in one’s value system. But that is not what Nangia (or any other article writer that I have read) wants to do. They all want to brush the truth, the conflict and the show itself under the carpet. Some even want to legislate the show out of existence. All of them want to preserve their existing relationships even at the cost of the truth. They think that conflict is inevitable. There is a grain of truth to that. Man is not born with a value system. He has to create it for himself. And not being infallible, it is likely that he will make mistakes. So some amount of conflict is inevitable when those mistakes manifest themselves. But the mistakes can and should be corrected. And that requires facing the truth. Conflict certainly does not have to be perpetual. For most people, it is perpetual because they have never made the effort to explicitly create a value system or even to question the one they happen to absorb from the culture. Their method of dealing with conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. When someone exposes this pretense, they want to pretend that the exposure does not exist either.

There isn’t anything wrong about not revealing the entire truth to everyone. Honesty is not an unconditional virtue. It is merely a recognition of the fact that wishing something does not make it so, that reality cannot be changed by refusing to recognize it. It is a virue when one is dealing with rational people. There is no reason to reveal the entire truth to random strangers when one does not know whether they are rational or not. But when one is dealing with people one claims to value, there can be no excuse for dishonesty. If a relationship is weakened by the truth, it cannot be valuable in the first place. Anyone who advocates hiding the truth from one’s loved ones is doing himself, his ‘loved ones’ and everyone else a great disservice.

The moral vs the practical

Via NoodleFood I came across this blog post on time management. The post is quite good in general but one particular point is not.

Determine what matters most to you. Make a list of the people, activities, and things in your life that mean the most to you and then spend the vast majority of your time focusing on these items. Be honest with yourself, though, and put on your list what really matters to you, not what you think should matter to you. [emphasis changed]

Consider the emphasized part. The author makes a distinction between what you think should matter to you and what really matters to you, between the moral and the practical. And then he goes on to say that you should choose the practical and disregard the moral. But if  ‘what you think should matter to you’ is not ‘what really matters to you’, then you have a much bigger problem than time management. If that which you consider to be moral is not practical, what sort of a moral code do you have? What purpose does it serve?

A person whose value judgements do not match his actions is a hypocrite. But the author advises exactly such hypocrisy and calls it ‘being honest to yourself’! What is the result of hypocrisy? A sense of guilt. The author seems to know that. In another point he writes

If an activity or responsibility isn’t on your list of what matters most to you, say “no” to it. Learn to say “no” in such a way as to not be a jerk, but say “no” when you need to. This is where I greatly differ from most people because I don’t feel guilty about protecting my time. [emphasis added]

I agree with the point. You shouldn’t feel guilty about protecting your time. But why do most people feel guilty about it? Because their moral code tells them that the good consists of serving others, that other peoples’ claims on your time or money or life are more important than your values – because they accept the moral code of altruism.

The author claims to feel no guilt. If that is true, then the author has rejected morality so completely that breaches of morality no longer bother him. But it also means that morality gives him no guidance whatsoever. The author might be quite good at managing his time – but to what end? Is whatever he chooses to do with his time worth doing in the first place? That is a moral question and no amount of pragmatism will answer it. But the question does need to be answered. So how does the pragmatist answer it? By default. By allowing his emotions (instead of a moral code) to determine his value judgements. Emotions are the result of earlier value judgements. If you choose not to make those judgements yourself, then you pick them up from others – from the culture in general, from the dominant code of morality. The very code of morality that the pragmatist thinks he has rejected in his day-to-day work ends up determining the goals of his life. And since the moral code of altruism is impractical and therefore destructive, the pragmatist ends up destroying his own life, values and goals – efficiently.

%d bloggers like this: