Moral Choices

The COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to a little spoken of national concern:  cheating in higher education.  Those who focused on the issue found that cheating had been a problem before the pandemic but became more widespread as remote teaching made it tougher to detect cheating.  Universities in response initiated a number of “reforms” mostly focused on penalties.  Cheating was treated as a crime from which the only resolution was the ending of college careers.  Bill Wildman, host of a popular interview show decided to interview Sam Johnson, a highly respected professor at a major university.  The following is a shortened transcript of the interview.

Bill:  Thanks for talking with me, Sam.  How big of a problem is cheating in higher education?

Sam: It’s a problem but not what most people think.

Bill:  What do you mean?

Sam:  If I were a defense attorney representing a student accused of cheating, I would use entrapment as a defense.  Faculty invite cheating when they use multiple choice tests, don’t change assignments, give the same tests year after year, and many other examples.

Bill:  You can’t tell me you have never had a cheating case?

Sam:  Yes, I’ve had students cheat, but I’ve always viewed those situations as partly my failing.  Why did that student not respect me as a person and feel that he/she had to cheat?  I think of cheating as a moral failure and my role as a professor/advisor/mentor is to help students make moral choices.

Bill:  Can you give me an example of how you handled a cheating case?

Sam:  I had a female student who cheated on a major assignment.  When I saw what she did, I asked to speak with her.  It turns out that she was overwhelmed dealing with her mother’s breast cancer.

Bill:  What did you do?

Sam:  I made her do another assignment.  Then I hired her to be my TA for the next semester.  I asked her to tell her story at the beginning of the semester.  This helped me turn cheating from its criminalization focus to a case of making moral choices.

Bill:  Great story.  Have there been others like that or is this an unusual case?

Sam:  There have been other cases and I can say that I’m tremendously gratified by the lives these students have lived.  I’ve never been disappointed in the moral choice that I made in the approach I took in how I handled these cases.

Bill:  Sam, you have certainly changed my perspective on the subject of this interview.  As you say, we need to reverse the criminalization of cheating and think of framing cheating as a decision-making process involving moral choices.

It’s striking how our society has treated behavioral issues with laws, rules, policies, and consequences rather than focusing on education about moral choices.  We treat violations of the laws, rules, and policies with unforgiving consequences.  The result is the ruining of lives where a more caring form of forgiveness could have helped a person live a more purposeful life.

Just imagine if we thought of justice as restorative rather than punitive? Do we have the capacity to care for those who have made wrong choices? Just imagine how we might convey the importance of moral choices to those who have every reason to reject our teaching? Just imagine how our judicial system can become more focused on human development than punishment?

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“It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.” – Mark Twain

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