One way to look at the problem of cheating among college and high school students is that they're just following the lead of their elders. They read or hear about dishonesty in business dealings, or about politicians skirting the campaign-finance laws.
There may be some truth to that line of analysis, but where does it lead? Adults should do better, but we can't wait for the role models to change before the coming generation can improve.
The time to instill a standard of honesty is when people are young, and the classroom - where children first do work that's evaluated by someone other than their parents - is a key place to start.
If the importance of honesty is effectively taught in school, the incidence of dishonesty in later professional or political life should decline. Recent studies of cheating in college and high school, however, indicate there's a lot of work to be done.
Student surveys through the '90s indicated that nearly 75 percent of college undergraduates cheated on papers or exams at least once. A recent survey of high-achieving high schoolers found 80 percent admitted to cheating. Those are considerably higher figures than earlier decades.
Why the increase in cheating? In addition to the poor role-model explanation, experts point to increased pressures on students to excel in school and to do well on standardized tests, and to lax oversight by some teachers and professors.
On a hopeful note, colleges that make a concerted effort to uphold a standard of honesty - telling kids repeatedly what's expected of them, and the consequences of cheating - have a lower incidence of cheating. Schools with formal honor codes, often enforced by students themselves, have the lowest rate of cheating.
What this suggests is that moral instruction, far from old-fashioned, is always in fashion. Students are fully capable of waking up to the fact that cheating is self-deception, and honesty is self-enriching.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society