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The death of honesty

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

UNO Charter School students commemorate 9/11

In the latest issue of the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Stanford professor William Damon mourns the “death of honesty” in today’s culture–and also in today’s schools. He writes:

For educators looking for opportunities to help students learn from their mistakes, there is plenty of material to work with: research has shown that almost three-quarters of American college students (that is, students who have made it through high school) admit to having cheated at least once in their pre-college academic work. Donald McCabe, the most prominent contemporary researcher on school cheating, has concluded that “Cheating is prevalent, and…some forms of cheating have increased dramatically in the last 30 years.”

Yet many teachers, in order to avoid legal action and other contention, look the other way if their students copy test answers or hand in plagiarized papers. Some teachers excuse students because they believe that “sharing” schoolwork is motivated by loyalty to friends. Some teachers sympathize with student cheaters because they consider the tests that students take to be flawed, unfair, or too difficult. Such sympathy can be taken to extremes, as in the case of one teacher, observed by an educational writer, who held that “it was the teacher who was immoral for having given the students such a burdensome assignment…” when a group of students was caught cheating.

Lamenting the change, Damon writes that “most troubling of all is that honesty is no longer a priority in many of the setting where young people are educated. The future of every society depends upon the character development of its young. It is in the early years of life—the first two decades especially—when basic virtues that shape character are acquired.”

We agree. Fortunately, there is reason to hope: as our recent report shows, many charter schools are taking character and civic education just as seriously as they do teaching math and reading.