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A just-released report by Donald McCabe, professor of organization management at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, describes a pretty bad ethical situation in America’s high schools. Seventy-five percent of students engage in “serious cheating” (such as repeated cheating and significant plagiarism).

It gets worse.

First, according to the professor, this epidemic is the culmination of three decades of increased cheating in high schools.

Second, about half of all students (not just half of all cheaters) see nothing wrong with cheating.

As one who has written and lectured on ethics for 30 years, during which time I, too, have spoken at high schools across America, I am certain that these statistics are accurate. I also believe that I know the major reasons.

One reason is that parents emphasize many things over character.

I would like to ask all parents: How bad would you feel if your child cheated on some tests, if most other students in the class also cheated and if those tests were crucial in enabling your child to get into a prestigious university?

I suspect that the percentage of parents who would be truly disturbed is virtually identical to the percentage of students who do not cheat.

Most parents think it is wrong to cheat, but few make a big deal about it. What would constitute a “big deal”? If, for example, parents expressed the same opposition to teen-age cheating as they do to teen-age smoking.

Let’s be honest. Parents and schools teach young people that smoking is terrible, not cheating. Let me state as a parent of three that I would much rather my teen-age child smoke a cigarette (or cigar or pipe, i.e., not marijuana) than cheat. But the number of American parents and teachers who feel this way could probably all meet in one high-school gym.

Now, you may say that this is an unfair comparison – you don’t want your child to smoke or to cheat. That’s fine. All I am saying is that I have no doubt that most parents and schools have been much more passionate in their opposition to teen smoking than to teen cheating.

And teens have assimilated the message. Health is a much higher value than character. That’s why the “c” word in high schools is far more likely to be “condom” than “character.”

A second reason is the absurd emphasis on getting into the best college. This preoccupation on the part of parents (which often begins in preschool) has utterly distorted our children’s (and high schools’) priorities. Because students are taught that getting into the right college is the most important thing in their lives, they readily compromise their character to achieve this goal. And they could not care less about learning. Since the purpose of school is to get good grades, learning is incidental, and loving learning is a non-issue.

My wife and I raise our children with little emphasis on grades, and none on what college they attend. But we are passionate about their goodness and character. We believe that in the long run, they will be better for it, and so, of course, will society.

A third and final reason is the death of the concept of sin, a product of the thoroughly secular education American high schools offer. As noted, far worse than the number of students who cheat is the number of students who think that there is nothing wrong with cheating. I can testify from my talks at high schools that the vast majority of students believe what they have been taught – that right and wrong are entirely subjective concepts. There is no morality higher than one’s own; therefore, right and wrong are defined by the individual, who can rationalize any behavior.

Young people are adults’ mirrors. If these data on cheating are accurate, that is a sobering thought.

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