Cheating Lessons

  Potomac, Maryland, is known for its multimillion- dollar estates and highly-ranked elementary school -- considered one of the best in the country. But a few days ago, Potomac became known for something else: One of the worst cheating scandals in recent memory. Only, it wasn't the students who were cheating: It was a teacher and the school's principal. The whole sordid story exposes how in secular America we've lost the basis for ethics. It turns out that when students took a state achievement test last month, a fifth-grade teacher and the school's principal pointed out wrong answers and urged kids to "try again." The students were given far longer to complete the tests than the rules allowed. Some were even called back later and told to change their answers. Parents were outraged when they found out. As one parent put it, for kids "to see their principal and teachers helping them [cheat]... sends a horrible message." The students were getting a moral education, all right, but the wrong kind. But who's surprised? Instead of teaching kids what constitutes good character, many teachers today are encouraging kids to discover their own values. It's the dangerous idea that all values are equal. In fact, the only time the curriculum is directive is when it involves trendy causes like environmentalism or feminism. What educators don't seem to understand is that virtue is not a matter of social causes. It's a matter of the soul, and that's where moral education has to begin. The point was beautifully illustrated a few years ago in a story told by philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers. Sommers had published an article urging ethics teachers to focus as much on private virtue as they do on public ethics -- to teach things like personal honesty, decency, and responsibility. One of Sommers's colleagues, an ethics professor, scoffed at this argument: "You're not going to have moral people," the colleague insisted, "until you have moral institutions." And she told Sommers that she planned to continue talking about social issues like women's rights, gay rights, and protecting the rain forests. By the end of the semester, however, Sommers' colleague was singing a different tune. To her shock, more than half the students in her ethics course had cheated on a take-home exam. Sheepishly, she told Sommers, "I'd like to borrow a copy of that article you wrote on ethics without virtue." This professor learned the hard way that we can deal with the moral malaise in American life only when we begin to cultivate personal virtue. That's a lesson that some of the kids in Potomac appear to have learned already. After taking their tests, they had the moral maturity to tell their parents that their teacher and principal had asked them to cheat. It seems their parents had taught them that cheating is wrong. Well, good for them! Plato said that order in society depends on the order in the individual human soul. When even school principals can't tell right from wrong, maybe it's time to bring that ancient dictum back. For the best way to avoid rearing a generation of moral dunces is to teach our kids -- and their teachers -- that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. And cheating is always wrong, no matter who tells you to do it.


Chuck Colson


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