The Outrage Over Students "Cheating" Is Mostly Harmful Nonsense

The Wall Street Journal asked a question with an obvious answer this week under the headline "How Could a Sweet Third-Grader Just Cheat on That School Exam?" A quick answer is, because human beings are a naturally social species that has survived and flourished for thousands of years by collaborating and discovering division of labor. A less obvious answer then is, because school insists on labeling those perfectly natural behaviors "cheating," when mostly it's mostly a case of school not knowing how to teach.

Kids, you already grasp this intuitively, but I'ma write the long version for you here.

Most schoolwork builds an artificial world in which your superior cares foremost about evaluating your work and offering you feedback on it. By the time you’re 25, at the latest, you’ll realize this setup amounts to an uproarious hoax. No one who works has time to tell you how to do your job better, because everyone is working his or her ass off just to get his or her work done and maybe have time to go to the gym or to have sex or to cook actual dinner at the end of their gantlet of a commute. Feedback is a luxury good unless you botch something in a dire way. Don't wait up for it.


Mostly it’s up to you just to do good work. To do the best work, you need the help of other people. This goes for everything ever, so let me repeat it: You will need other people to help you do the best work possible. How you get this help is a matter of using the resources at your disposal. Those tools include: horse-trading, bullying, threatening, manipulating, cajoling, networking, buying, massaging, or simply building a reputation for honesty and integrity that draws other people into your orbit. Or it’s all of the above. But your job, no matter what your job is, is really to figure out how to do the best work, and unless you’re Ted Kaczynksi, your job is going to involve cultivating working relationships with other people.

Thus your schooling, administered properly, should encourage you to maximize your relationships as they relate to the work you do for school. But chances are, you’re being evaluated almost exclusively on cloistered, individual assignments. This will give you the illusion that you can do good work as an autonomous working unit. And you can, but only to a limited degree. If singleton work is all you spend your time doing, then you’re not getting ready for a world in which there’s no central authority figure judging the quality of your work. Most of the time, in life, you’ll be expected to perform well as part of a group and that work will be evaluated, loosely, by other groups or by the public at large. Aside from extra-curriculars such as orchestra or volleyball or theater or yearbook, schools don't make use of that structure. By setting you up to succeed at school, school is mostly preparing you for a perilous fantasy.

So, please, when you read this hand-wringing about "cheating," take it with a giant grain of salt. You’re not little criminals for helping one another or for sharing ideas or asking someone what the answer is. You’re not “cheating” the system. You are instead demonstrating an aptitude for discerning how things really work. You’re collaborating, you’re maximizing resources, and you’re managing risk. If schools were really preparing you for the 80 percent of your life that happens after you graduate, they’d evaluate you en masse, in dynamic groups. They’d encourage you to find ways to help the people around you, and they’d encourage you, implicitly or explicitly, to look for the talents of the people around you and try to complement them with your own abilities.

Am I encouraging you to “cheat”? No, I don’t think I am. That old adage about you “only cheating yourself” is largely true. There are a bunch of bullshitters with bullshit degrees and bullshit titles who skate only so far before the people who have done the real work their whole lives call them on their bullshit. Don’t be a bullshitter. And don't take credit for work someone else did, because it's not only a lie, it will piss off the person who just did the real work and you'll be left flat on your lying, lazy ass. But don’t be a chump, either. Look around at the lawyers, the bankers, the politicians, the business leaders, the scientists, the filmmakers, the musicians, the tech innovators, the athletes, and ask yourself: Did these people rise by performing excelling in an infinite series of discrete, individually graded tasks? Or did they find other talented people and collaborate with them? Answer that question for yourself, then get together with your friends and insist to your educators that you'd like to be prepared accordingly.

How Could a Sweet Third-Grader Just Cheat on That School Exam? []

Photo credit of art installation meant to illustrate the 857 American students who drop out of school every hour of every school day: Getty