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Monday, December 01, 2008

"Everyone else does it."

The Josephson Institute Study of the Ethics of American Youth has been widely reported on such widely varied outlets as National Public Radio, Fox News, and Yahoo News. They report “a troubling picture of our future politicians and parents, cops and corporate executives, and journalists and generals.”

I do agree that their picture is troubling, but something about their analysis makes me uneasy. First let’s look at their results:
More than one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of the girls (26 percent)...admitted stealing from a store within the past year.

...

A substantial majority (64 percent) cheated on a test during the past year (38 percent did so two or more times).

...

As bad as these numbers are, it appears they understate the level of dishonesty exhibited by America’s youth. More than one in four (26 percent) confessed they lied on at least one or two questions on the survey. Experts agree that dishonesty on surveys usually is an attempt to conceal misconduct.
The justification, of course, is that “everyone else does it.” That may explain the cognitive dissonance:
Despite these high levels of dishonesty, the respondents have a high self-image when it comes to ethics. A whopping 93 percent said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character and 77 percent said that when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.
So, how do we interpret all of this? As a teacher of teens, I have to be troubled by these results. (I’m ignoring the self-reported accounts of using the Internet to cheat, as that’s a remarkably gray area.) But the report doesn’t quite ring true, despite the assurance that “These statistics have been verified by the Department Chair, Decision Sciences & Marketing, Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University.” Maybe I’m in an atypical situation, but I just can’t believe that over half of my students have cheated on a test during the past year. I don’t want to be flippant, but maybe it depends on what the definition of “cheat” is. Maybe I’m just unobservant, but I don’t see students using notes on a no-notes section of a test, and I don’t see them texting on their cell phones, and it’s hard for me to figure out other ways in which they might be cheating. I do hear of the occasional student in other classes who texts during a test or sneaks in notes, but I just don’t see it, and it seems rare and exceptional. I guess I have to look into this matter further.

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