Ethics@Work: The blind leading the blind

Ethical stature of future educators is a concern.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit:)
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
I don't get indignant very easily. On the whole I'm pretty aware, and even understanding, of the power and importance of expediency in everyday life, even as I try to inspire people to transcend it. I strive above all to be non-judgmental in my columns; I'm an ethicist, I tell people, not a moralist. Yet very rarely, once in a few years, I see a moral abyss so vast I get "ethical acrophobia." It happened recently when I saw the results of a survey by Dr. Leah Baratz of Givat Washington College and Dr. Ronnie Reingold of Achva College. They wanted to know if students thought there was anything wrong with copying on assignments. Now my rule of thumb in these cases is the famous "20 percent rule": 20% of people will cheat no matter what; 20% won't cheat no matter what; 60% will cheat only if there is no effective enforcement. (Another version refers to locks: 20% aren't deterred by them; 20% are deterred even without them; 60% won't go in if there's a lock.) So I would have guessed that about 20% would say there's nothing wrong with copying, 20% would say it's a grave offense, and the average Jane or Joe would express some intermediate level of disapproval - perhaps that it's wrong but it shouldn't be punished. In fact, according to news reports, well over 90% of the students said there was nothing morally wrong with copying from a friend or from the Internet; an even larger fraction felt that copying shouldn't be punished. Of course, when we see statistics we have to ask ourselves if they are representative. Are there any considerations we left out? Unfortunately there are. The first is self-reporting of attitudes. Pointing out the dangers of self-reporting, Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik wrote this week: "The desire to appear in step with social norms is a powerful force. Just as it causes people to underplay their bad behavior, like drunk driving, it causes them to exaggerate their good deeds. A poll conducted in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, for example, suggested Americans had given $10 billion to relief efforts. A more credible tally, based on a survey of aid groups, put the total at $745 million, including donations from foundations." An example I like is calorie intake. Studies show that self-reporting underestimates it by about 20% to 33%. So we must conclude either that even more students think cheating is OK, or else that there is so little social stigma attached to it that students don't even want to appear to be disapproving of copying. Another worrisome aspect is which students were surveyed. These weren't students of economics, who are trained to maximize their utility subject to constraints; all of the students surveyed were studying to be teachers. As Leah Baratz commented: "The results of the study caused me discomfort. We're talking about students who are about to lead education in the country in the coming years, and the results raise the question, Are they really ready for this great and important task?" What are they going to say when their students cheat on exams? What kind of education is going to take place in Israeli schools if the teachers don't care if the students do any work? It's also true that we can't take statistics at face value; we have to consider also our real-world experience. Unfortunately, my own experience in academia, as well as the many queries I receive regarding ethical questions in academia, don't give me any particular reason to doubt there is a massive plagiarism crisis in Israeli colleges, particularly the second-tier ones. I often hear that even teachers who are interested in fighting plagiarism receive only lukewarm backing from the administration. In the universities, the situation seems to be much better. I also have the unfortunate impression that the Council for Higher Education does not take the problem seriously. For example, a few years ago I was disappointed and astonished to find out that having a plagiarism policy was not a prerequisite for obtaining accreditation in Israel. Looking at the CHE Web site, I don't find any indication that this has changed. Perhaps future studies may give us a slightly different picture, but if indeed more than 90% of Israel's future teachers think there is nothing wrong with copying on school assignments, then our educational system will truly be a case of the blind leading the blind.