On cheating in school.

Find the first essay I wrote about this topic here.

I have a little bit more to write about McBrayer’s “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” editorial.  But this’ll be the end of it, I swear!  It’s just that I didn’t manage to cram anything in as a response to this passage:

“It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”

StateLibQld_1_100348Which is something that’s probably worth addressing, the idea that it is not morally wrong to cheat at college.  Because I think that’s probably the biggest distinction between facts and opinions: with opinions, value judgments, et al., two people presented with all the same evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions.  I felt that McBrayer wrote his editorial as though it were obvious that anyone reading would think that cheating at college was morally wrong, and I disagree.

Not that I cheated on tests or homework when I was in college.  And if you’d asked college me about it, he probably would’ve said immediately that cheating was invariably wrong, and maybe strung together some unpleasant-sounding adjectives to describe people who did.

I’ve mellowed out some since then, but also, the practice of writing a novel that dabbles in free indirect discourse was good for me.  It forced me to empathize more with a wide variety of people, and consider why they do the things they do.

So let’s get to it, then!  An argument for why it isn’t immoral to cheat in college.  (Not that you should do it.  This argument is based on the idea of fighting back against bad actions with more bad actions, which I think is a crummy way to live.  But philosophically justifiable, in my opinion.)

If you don’t have a college degree, you’re less likely to find a job, and the job you do find will probably pay less than if you do have a college degree.  I assume most people have seen the handy employment charts like the one below printed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics: here’s a link in case you want more information.


If you do have a college degree, you might not find a job.  And many jobs you might find won’t put your degree to any use.  Here: in a token gesture toward political neutrality, I’ll include a quotation from a Forbes article written by George Leef (tagline: “I write on the damage big government does, especially to education”).

“The solution to the paradox is that the gap is widening because credential inflation is steadily wiping out good careers for people who don’t have college degrees.”

The issue here is that, given the number of available jobs, and the number of job seekers with and without a college degree, employers can chose to preferentially hire degree holders even for work that doesn’t require it.  Possibly employers are extracting extra value from their workers this way: I mentioned information sets in one previous essay, but it’s probably worth a quick discussion of Michael Spence’s “Job Market Signaling” paper.  Which, if you have a minute, you should at least read the first two paragraphs; you won’t learn anything about his model, but it might make you smile, and it’s not super common for economics articles to be funny.

A quick, approximate summary of his work is that all people have a hidden variable, known only to themselves, that indicates how good they are at tasks relevant for both education and employment.  Education will not alter this variable in the slightest (which obviously goes against my beliefs, since I like to maintain a growth mindset about most everything in life), nor will education teach you anything that would be of use in eventual employment.  Education is also costly — it’s hard work, studying, getting good grades, moving on — and is more costly the lower your value of that hidden variable.  So the model assumes that brilliant students will be effective workers, and that your brilliant student would be just as effective if you hired him or her out of middle school or after waiting until a whole litany of advanced degrees have been obtained.

31VGKPCQN0L._SY300_The idea, then, is that employers for high-paying jobs will preferentially hire those with fancy degrees.  The fancy degree indicates that this person will be an effective worker.  Less effective workers don’t have fancy degrees because their costs of getting degrees are higher, so the break-even point, where they’re better off quitting school and settling for whatever job they can get with the degrees they have already, comes sooner.  Maybe after high school, maybe after a B.A., maybe after an M.A., whatever.

Under all the assumptions of the model (which, right, obviously everyone knows a brilliant student or two who’s a crappy worker.  There are plenty of jobs for which I’d fall into that category: I’m clumsy and don’t deal well with authority figures, two strikes against me for many forms of employment), this could work out reasonably well if there are plenty of jobs.  People get a fair chance, and, yes, their college degrees are just a waste of time and effort to obtain, but at least they get their good jobs.

In a bad economy, though, where job offers are doled out by a cartel of employers with near-monopsonic power, future employees are pushed to obtain more and more useless degrees… the idea of a break-even point arriving is based on knowing that there’ll be a job available for you when you stop out of education.  But if there are many people, including ten potential high achievers, all striving for nine jobs, then there’s no reason to stop out of education… you could keep accruing degrees hoping to supplant anyone holding those jobs currently.  And, given that the degrees come at a cost to you, and all they accomplish is signaling to a potential employer, and there’s no reason to want to signal honestly provided you can do the work, then it would be moral to take whatever measures necessary to reduce your cost of obtaining degrees.  Including cheating.

And all of this is especially relevant now because: one, the economy is bad enough that many college graduates can only find minimum-wage jobs; two, at many universities the quality of education is not super high (it’s worth looking at Murray Sperber’s “Beer and Circus” for a thorough discussion of this point); and, three, the cost of college education has been rising dramatically.  Financial cost, that is.  The effort cost of many college degrees has been dropping, but the rising financial cost alone is pretty horrible.  These three factors in concert seem sufficient to make our current world more closely resemble Spence’s model than the world did when his paper was published.

Not to say that I think people should cheat.  I think a better system would be for jobs to be available, and for each level of education to be sufficiently rigorous that students gain something from the experience (honestly, there’s an additional essay lurking behind this sentiment, the idea that many “low achieving” students are written off and purposefully not challenged by their teachers during school — one thing K does really well is that she forces students in her intro-level / you’re-shunted-into-this-if-you-seem-like-a-screw-up science class to work, and the students generally seem to enjoy being forced to work because it means one hour in which they’re not bored out of their skulls), and for students to comply with educator-imposed morality during school.

But that would require many things to be different about our world — to start, new fiscal policy with increased spending so that more jobs would be generated, and major restructuring of education at all levels, including elementary, secondary, collegiate and graduate.  Until those changes occur, though, I think cheating can be justified as a morally-reasoned response to an all-around bad situation.

On value claims and the popular press.

Normally I try to make these essays positive.  I read a lot of books — because I’m writing, knowing things is part of my job, which means I have to read a lot of nonfiction, and appreciating beautiful language is part of my job, so I have to read a lot of fiction — but many people don’t have that luxury.  Obviously I’m very lucky that K and N and I have currently arranged our lives such that I get to do this.  But, given that other people might not get to read as much as I do, why should I announce that something I read was bad?  I’d rather spend most of my time highlighting things that I think other writers have done well, beautiful passages or facts that I feel ought to be more widely known.

God_the_GeometerThat said, though, there are obviously times when I read things and feel irritated.  And I don’t have the same compunction against arguing with articles from newspapers and magazines; they don’t represent quite as much sunk time on the part of the authors.  And if you, dear reader, happen to feel like looking at the original piece to have a better idea what I’m writing about, it won’t involve a huge time outlay on your part.

I felt somewhat surprised to see an article titled “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” at the top of the New York Times website.  McBrayer was upset because children in public schools are being taught that facts are things that are true and can be tested, whereas opinions are what someone thinks, feels, or believes.  Which seems fine to me.  McBrayer posited that a number of things that are facts cannot be proven, however: the example he gave was the statement “There is life elsewhere in the universe.”  He thinks this can’t be proven, but that seems odd.  There is a simple experiment that makes that statement known to be true or false: set up probes throughout the universe, if there is life near any of them, the statement is true, if there is not, the statement is not true.  And he gives the example of “The world is flat” as a once-proven fact.  Indeed, that statement is easily testable and so lies in the realm of factual claims, and even when it was commonly believed people knew there was a test for it: find the edge of the world.  If you go straight west and fall off, the world is flat.  If you go straight west and end up at your house, the world is round.  Just because people anticipated the former outcome doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fact-based claim.

McBrayer’s main point of contention, though, was that school curricula label all value-based claims as opinion.  As in, outside the realm of being true or false.

(One strange thing about writing this essay is that somehow I wound up on the side of defending standard school curricula.  Which is odd because I hated school.  And still do dislike it; I denounce standard educational practices several times a week, usually.  Which sounds absurd, maybe, like, why are you still talking about that?, except that K is a high school teacher.  So it comes up a lot.

Hohendorf, JP mit DorflehrerAnd, look.  Obviously the school curricula are terrible.  In McBrayer’s article there is a list of statements from a fact vs. opinion worksheet that includes things like “Copying homework assignments is wrong.”  “All men are created equal.”  “It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.”  “Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.”  “Drug dealers belong in prison.”  And the worksheet grading rubric apparently lists all of those as opinions because each is a value claim and value claims are not facts.

Which isn’t true, not for standard English definitions of those words.  Specifically, “All men are created equal.”  That’s a statement of fact, and it isn’t true.  We’re created with unequal genetic heritage, unequal environments, unequal parentage, unequal geographical distribution.  Or “Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.”  That’s obviously not a value claim: decide upon whatever biomarkers you want as a readout for “healthier” and it’s simple to test.  Longevity, blood iron levels, max bench press, cholesterol ratios: doesn’t matter what metrics you chose to represent the word healthier, because any of them, or any matrix combining them with whatever weightings you choose, will provide a discrete answer.

So I’d be happy to agree with McBrayer if he were upset that these worksheet compilers were foolish, as in failed to apply their own definitions.)

To quote his article, “For example, at the outset of the school year, my son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities.  Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions.  According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact.”  But the school’s position isn’t inconsistent here: student rights and responsibilities are based on unverifiable opinion.  But those running a school can exclude someone who doesn’t act in accordance with their beliefs.

And, look, I’m no moral relativist: I have strong beliefs and in my vituperative private life routinely condemn things I disagree with as immoral.  But it does a severe disservice to the concept of truth to claim that it holds sway in the realm of values.  For instance, at the end of his article McBrayer writes “Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not.  The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.”

But this is not correct.  Value claims are different.  One of the easiest ways to see this is to consider the idea of human rights, that it’s wrong to deny people life.  That’s a fairly simple claim, right?  And the underpinning of many features of our society.  But it’s not justifiable in the realm of true statements, because it’s actually quite easy to build up a chain of logic that shows it to be false under many circumstances.

For instance, here are some facts: humans are heterotrophs.  We cannot convert sunlight into energy, so if we don’t eat things, we die.  If you’re traveling with a group and have a limited amount of food, and then your journey takes longer than you’d anticipated, some or all of the people who began the trip will have to die.

So maybe you could start qualifying things.  The “people have a right to be alive,” claim, which implies (because we are heterotrophs) “people have a right to receive enough food,” could receive an addendum “as long as there is enough food for everyone.”  But that simple qualification introduces a whole host of new problems.  Consider Moses and his interpretation of dreams: he strongly believed that unless a specific amount of food was saved for the famine years, many people would die.  But what if the need to stock the larders would reduce the current available food below the amount needed to keep everyone alive?  Or what if people wanted enough to be not simply alive (which doesn’t require many calories, not for the average Homo sapiens), but healthy?

(I almost digressed into a second example — humans need space in order to live, but there is a finite amount of space on our planet and the space we take up can’t be used by others — but luckily I restrained myself.  Which in itself demonstrates a lot of the problem of treating value claims as potentially true / false; the basic rules of logic, when applied to value claims, lead rapidly to absurd statements.  And, look, I tried, I tried for years… I wanted my morality to be demonstrably true, so I tried building it logically from set theory, the idea that a universe with more options had greater than or equal utility to a universe with fewer, like how if you were chasing someone through a building, and that person had a keychain with four keys, and you came to a room with four locked doors, you’d have a greater than or equal chance of catching that person if your keychain also had four keys than if it had three.  The idea being that killing things removed options, because if a thing is alive it can always be made dead a minute later, but if something is dead you can’t bring it back to life.  Needless to say, I wasted a lot of time and energy and writing paper on this project when I could have simply intoned “I will try to be good” and left it at that.)

Gandhi_thinking_mood_1931It seems fairly clear to me that value claims aren’t true or false, cannot be proven true or falsified… but so what?  The idea that this would be necessary sounds strikingly similar to the argument that atheists have no reason to be good.  Which is ridiculous.  Though I know there’s no justification for it, I have an image in my mind of the type of world that would be good.  I act in accordance with my desire to make the world we all share more closely resemble that world.  What’s that bumper sticker slogan, the one often attributed to Ghandi?  I think it’s a good sentiment, and one that doesn’t need anything to be true (not even the attribution) for you to act upon it.