Students Cheating and American Subjectivism

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Ethics class

Ethics class (Photo credit: aditza121)

Students cheating in school is not a new thing, but it has become an epidemic in recent years. The Internet has made cheating easier, with thousands of term papers students buy and pass off as their own work. Cell phones are now used by students to get answers from their classmates or to look them up on a website. What is most surprising is how many students see no moral problem with cheating. Sometimes irate parents will visit a high school principle or college dean and complain that their child did not cheat, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the student. Is it any surprise that there are so many scandals in business and in government? Children are emulating the values of their parents, who reflect the terrible trend in American culture to want something for nothing.

The rampant relativism to which students are exposed on television, by celebrities, by the media, in the K-12 school system, and in colleges and universities makes it easy for students to become subjectivists on ethics. “Whatever floats your boat” or “Whatever I think is right is right for me and whatever you think is right for you” becomes the mantra of many students today. The most dogmatic relativists are as closed-minded as any religious fundamentalist. The fact that they become angry and try to cut a professor off when he argues against subjectivism reveals that they only want their views to be heard. Apparently the position held by the professor and by other students that everyone, including the professor, has the right to speak his mind has not sunk into these students.

I am at a loss to determine how to get beyond the impasse of relativistic propaganda in society. When the United States accepted a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, as it did from the Second Great Awakening in the late eighteenth century through around 1963, one could argue from a common morality held by the vast majority of Americans. With the decline of Christianity and the proliferation of different religions and cultures, one could try to find common values between them–and between deeply devout people of all major religions much commonality in moral beliefs is present. Radical secularism, agnosticism, and atheism can try to develop a non-relativistic deontological or utilitarian system, but other secularists who desire to do what they want without restraint could say, “Okay, there’s a common morality needed for the good of society, but I don’t care about the good of society. There’s no God to stop me from being a self-centered ass. So that’s what I’ll be.” Without transcendent meaning, how strong is the force of the “ought” in ethics (I am borrowing this point from George Mavrodes). Students may intellectually believe in some kind of deity, but the secular relativism they have been taught from kindergarten onward has already sunk into their psyche. This fact, along with the inherent immaturity and selfishness of youth, make for a combination that will inevitably result in rampant cheating. I have had students of all grades brag to me about how they successfully cheated in school. It is a matter of pride to them. It is a matter of shame to American society that its cultural rot since 1964 has destroyed any notion of transcendent meaning (beyond trying to find it through pleasure), has promoted self-centeredness, has promoted “success” by any means necessary, and has lied to people by telling them they should be proud of their accomplishments even if they did not earn them. With churches catering to the relativist, postmodern young person without trying to correct their relativism, all that results is high recidivism and young people who leave church with the same twisted values they previously had accepted. Without a large-scale religious revival, which I do not see coming in the United States, growing irreligiosity will cause societal destruction in the U.S.–Europe had enough residual tradition to withstand falling into chaos when Europeans gave up on Christianity, but how long will that last? I expect more cheating in the future by students. Some will get caught, most will not care unless they are caught (and even then for selfish reasons), and the shred of integrity left in the American educational system will be threatened.

Today’s College and University Students: Expectations vs. Real Abilities

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Learning Something New

Image by Earlham College via Flickr

In the course of eighteen years as a full-time university professor, I have encountered the following situation many times. An irate student knocks on my office door to complain about a grade. Even when I show the student his paper, he complains, saying, “My teachers have always told me I’m a good writer. I’m real smart. You’re the only teacher who’s ever given me grades this low.” When the student leaves, I look over the paper again. There is not one coherent English sentence in the entire paper. It is so unclear I have to re-read it several times to get the point the student is trying to make. The paper makes multiple mistakes about a philosopher or philosopher’s actual position. There is no argumentation in the paper, only claims, many of them spiced with emotional tirades.

Some of my colleagues pass out a questionnaire at the beginning of each semester. One question is “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Students provide a variety of answers, including “I want to become a pediatrician,” or “I want to be a best-selling author.” Later, it turns out those same students read and write at a fifth-grade level at best, have poor math skills, and are C students or lower. How can such high expectations co-exist with such low intellectual ability?

One reason, I believe, likes in the American culture of entitlement, a culture that is reflected in the government school system. Grades K-12 are no longer about teaching basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, and a basic knowledge of science and history. Teacher education schools operate on the “mantra of the year,” and none of these mantras help teachers to educate students. A few years ago the mantra was “facilitative teacher,” which was more about letting the students run the show and teaching politically correct left-wing ideology than teaching children basic skills. Before that, the emphasis, which still is operative in the public schools, was on student “self-esteem.” Rather than encouraging self-esteem for real achievement, students were taught to feel good about themselves at the expense of academic standards. The result is a group of students who feel great about themselves but who are also, to put it frankly, “dumb as dirt.” They are taught that they can do anything, and are given the grades to prove it—but without grades reflecting real abilities, when those same students enter college or university, their dreams are shattered. Rather than taking responsibility for themselves and working on improving their skills, many students “blame the professor” and move to an easy major such as education or social work. In those fields, they can continue their “education” in self-esteem and left-wing politically correct ideology—and they will remain ignorant and uneducated in reality.

Such poison has infiltrated higher education in the form of “student-centered education,” which supposedly is better for “post-modern students” who cannot learn from traditional methods of teaching. Although there is nothing wrong with varying from the traditional lecture and using visual aids or discussion groups—I use those methods myself—the real goal of “student-centered education” is to ignore traditional methods of education such as lecture and memorization. And though I agree with student-centered education’s emphasis on getting students to think, they still require some content to think about—and this implies some lecture, reading, and memorization. Students do not automatically know what is best for them, and the rise of student evaluation of faculty and student influence on the curriculum coincided with the lowering of academic standards.

What can be done? First, education schools, which have been the source of much of the plague infecting the school system, should be replaced by an internship system. In this system, students would get a strong liberal arts undergraduate degree that emphasizes general education plus knowledge of a particular field. Then those students who desire to teach should go through an internship in the school system in order to develop their teaching skills and learn the technology. Second, no student should go through grades K-12 without being taught basic grammar—and I recommend some elements of classical rhetoric, perhaps a basic course in classical rhetoric. Third, students should be taught the history of the United States and of the world so that they know not only historical facts, but also geography and its effect on historical development. Fourth, students should be taught basic skills in mathematics and science. Fifth, school should emphasize real achievement and support high academic standards, including grades that reflect a student’s actual ability instead of high grades to promote “self-esteem.” Sixth, higher education should avoid the mistake the public school system has made and avoid trends toward “post-modern education”—there is still room for traditional teaching methods so that students learn the facts that provide content for thinking. And students, when they are old enough to think critically, should be taught how to reason from kindergarten through their university education. Only if we focus on the tried and true rather than the newfangled and false will the gap between expectations and skills be bridged.