Friday, September 5, 2008

On Cheating

So—I've given my ENWR100 students their first assignment: an essay on Cheating. Yes, cheating: those little (and sometimes not so little) things we all do from time to time to give ourselves an unearned advantage over others. In class we discussed cheating mostly as applied to school— to cheating on tests and exams and to plagiarism, "borrowing" another person's words and using them as your own without attribution. 

Now go home and write a short essay on cheating, I said. Take a position. Argue the position with yourself using the supplied texts as reference points (I had given them two essays by others on the subject). Keep and open mind and be prepared to have your views shift as you explore and write. 

Later that day, as always happens soon after I assign an essay topic, I had a minor panic attack. It happened as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, on the lower level (I always use the Lower Level; on average the Upper Level, which allows trucks, takes five minutes longer). To myself I said: how would I write this essay? Could I write it? What would I say?

I did what I always do when I start an essay: I free-associate. I considered the word "cheating," not just it's literal meaning (though it helps to know that, too: cheat, vt [from eschete, fr. reversion of property,  escheoir, to fall, devolve] 1: the act of fraudulently deceiving: DECEPTION, FRAUD . . . 2: to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud 3: to influence or lead by deceit 1b: to violate rules dishonestly [as at cards] . . . ) but its connotations, the things I associate with cheating. 

I thought of games, of playing. "You cheated!" The checker piece moved as the other player's eyes are turned, the card dealt from the bottom of the deck, the spitball, tilting the pinball machine, grabbing an extra Scrabble letter or Monopoly card from the game box . . . When it comes to games, though we know cheating isn't fair, we also laugh about it, because no one gets hurt, not seriously; because it's just a game. It's not real; it's not life we're cheating at, but an artificial, completely symbolic game.

Okay. So then I think, Wait a minute; isn't school—isn't everything we do in school, in classrooms, artificial? For instance: this essay you've been asked to write. What's real about it? Is it going to be published anywhere? Will someone be paying for it?  Is it not just an exercise, a game? If so, then why not plagiarize? Why not cheat? If you can give yourself an edge in pinball by tilting the machine, or strike a batter out in baseball by applying a touch of spit to the ball, then why not cheat at the game called "school"? 

And if school is a game, what about life? Is there any good reason not to look at life itself as a game with losers and winners? And who's to say we should follow the "rules"? Does life follow the rules? Does GOD (or destiny, if you prefer) follow them? If a hurricane blows away my house, or if I'm diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, has life not cheated me? One quick look around is all it takes to see that, when it comes to the game of life, people are constantly being cheated: out of money, out of love, out of health, even out of life itself. 

A good friend of mine, my swimming coach, the healthiest man in the world, a man who kept in shape and ate organic oatmeal with fruit every day, died thirty years sooner than he should have of a cancer that should have been caught but wasn't. Fair? He played by the rules;as his wife said with tears in her eyes at his memorial service, "He did everything right." And still he "lost" the game. Perhaps he should have cheated a little more? Maybe playing fair in an unfair game is for suckers.

I'm not being totally sincere. After all, usually when we cheat it's not "life" we're cheating but others who, like us, are struggling to survive and get ahead. You can't cheat "the house." It sets the rules and holds all the cards. Like a casino, if it chooses to, it can boot us out.

And even if life is a game, still, isn't it better to play fair, to know that—however you come through at the end—you played by the rules and took no unfair advantages? You weren't like that guy who dressed up like a woman and snuck onto one of the Titanic's lifeboats. Winner or loser, you did not disgrace yourself or your fellow humans. You played honorably, nobly. You did your damndest and you didn't resort to cheating.

These are some of my thoughts as I cruise up the Henry Hudson Parkway, headed home. 

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