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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cheating and imaginary property, Part Two

This is a follow-up to my post of December 26. There are two separate and distinct issues here:
  1. Has there been a decline in ethical attitudes and behavior among students in recent years?
  2. Are some lines that used to be bright now in fact just shades of gray?
Let’s take them one at a time. First, I suspect that every generation believes that there has been a decline in ethical attitudes and behavior. But unfortunately the usual citations are highly questionable. For example, consider the following (attributed to Socrates via Plato):
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
What a great example! But apparently it doesn’t actually come from Plato, even though it has been floating around the Internet for years. Oh, well.

Despite quotations that might be spurious, it is hard to believe that there has been a recent decline. We usually view the past through rosy glasses. I just wish there were more actual evidence.

The second issue is probably more telling. Bright lines are easy when cheating is difficult. They become gray when cheating is easy. Not very many students are likely to go to the trouble of writing illegal notes on the back of a label affixed to a water bottle, though that kind of cheating is not unheard-of. But downloading a verboten copy of a song or a video is all too easy. As is making photocopies of copyrighted text. (Do you know any teachers who have done that?) Ease of cheating doesn’t make an act any more or less unethical, but it certainly makes it more likely. And the lines have become grayer. What is “fair use”? Can I photocopy some material for a class when I don’t have time to get permission? Can I do so when I am unlikely to get permission? What if it’s a single paragraph? What if it’s a whole chapter? What if the book is out-of-print? What if a student doesn’t cite a source for “commonly known” facts? What if a teacher copies a problem? What if s/he copies a problem and makes a small change? The lines aren’t so bright now that we have the technology to copy material off the Internet and to make photocopies of printed matter. Let him who is without sin...

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