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.

Government and education

A while back I came across this infuriating story (via A Little Lower than The Angels) of a man who did not send his children to a public school against the law of his state and so was shot dead by the agents of the state. Since I have written a bit lately on the moral and political implications of public education, this is a good time to relate this story to that debate. The legal murder of John Singer is the logical conclusion to any arguement that advocates public education. Here’s how.

a) The state has the power to tax me to provide public education.

b) Therefore I have a legal responsibility to the state for the welfare of others.

c) Therefore the state may decide that my children’s education is essential to the welfare of others (free and compulsory education)

d) Therefore  the state may decide what this education must consist of.

e) Therefore the state may punish me (ultimately by death if I resist) if I refuse to accept the state’s requirements.

Do you agree with (a) but not with (e)? Examine your premises. Logic has a way of catching up with people even if they do not choose to be logical.

If you make x private…

T.R. asks a question that begins with “If you make education private”

The question should be the other way round, “if you make education <i>public</i>…”
Education is just a service rendered by some people (teachers, school administrators) for others (students). Like any other service, it has to be paid for in some form. The default is (should be) for the service beneficiaries to pay the service providers. The default is <i>not</i> to have a service public. My point is that you are starting from a socialist framework (where everything is public). But that is not a natural framework to start with. A framework (when it is explicitly created by interactions of men) needs justification. Your question already assumes that there is some justification to have education be public.
You should start from the natural state of affairs, where education like other services is a private service. Now ask “Should this service be made public?” Immediately several questions arise: How is this service (education) different in principle from other services? What sort of differences require a service to be public? Who decides what these differences are? What happens in the case of a disagreement? Note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. Individuals make all the decisions themselves, with no physical force being used.

Suppose, for the moment, that you find the answers to these questions. Several other questions now arise. What constitutes a proper education? Should mathematics be a part of this education? Should astrology be a part of this education? Should religious teachings be a part of this education? What sort of clothing is acceptable for students (or teachers)? What costs are acceptable? What compensation is acceptable for the service providers? Should parents who do not accept the public answers to these questions be allowed to teach their own children? Should they then still be taxed? Note that I am not making up any of these questions. They are all actual issues that have come up at one time or the other. There have been petitions claiming that maths should be optional. There has been a court case regarding the inclusion of astrology. The issue of teaching creationism (or intelligent design) keeps coming up in the U.S. There are court cases in places like France, U.K and Turkey about scarves, turbans and burkhas. There are teachers unions in some places in India. I remember reading about a teachers association in the U.S. that does a lot of lobbying in the government. There is an active homeschooling movement in the U.S. I remember there was a proposition about tax credits for homeschooling parents (I don’t know if it was passed). Again, note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. If a parent does not like a particular school, he can choose another one or maybe not choose any school at all.

Once you think it through, it is obvious that any answers (no matter what political process is used to arrive at it) to these questions will involve the initiation of physical force against individuals. You might argue that I am mixing up examples from the U.S. (a developed country) and India (a developing country). That India needs public education (even if it involves some force) if it is to develop. Note that (in its somewhat credible form) this is a variant of the benevolent dictator arguement (For the democratic form, look at today’s frontpage of The Times of India). The problem with that arguement is it ignores man’s nature and the conditions required for progress. Why is India a developing country (despite decades of public education) while the U.S. achieved near universal literacy with mostly private schools (according to this article in Wikipedia – “The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. In fact, the first national census conducted in 1840 indicated that near-universal (about 97%) literacy among the white population had been achieved.”)? The benevolent dictator arguement mixes up causes and effects. Freedom is the cause, progress (of which education is an indicator) is the effect (look at the history of Europe for example). The two cannot be interchanged. India will remain a “developing” country until people realize the value of freedom. Just compare the results of 60 years of public education and 20 years of limited economic freedom. Which of the two have caused progress?

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