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  • Writer's pictureShea Swauger

Cheating Doesn't Matter

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

I don’t care about cheating.

In school, it doesn’t matter the grade, the subject, or the test, I don’t think it’s a big deal. These are fightin’ words in higher education. Every college and university academic integrity policy in the world, to my knowledge, disagrees with me on this. They regard cheating as a serious offense that can lead to the expulsion of the offending student. I’m undeterred.

I’ve cheated many times in my education (pause for gasps, clutching of pearls). According to most surveys where students anonymously self-report cheating rates, it’s likely that you’ve cheated too, at least once in your academic career and probably more than that. Most of the people leading and teaching at universities have also cheated when they were in school. That said, we’re still not at a point where we openly talk about it. But that’s not why student cheating doesn't matter.

Cheating is usually defined as someone having an unfair advantage. For example, looking up answers to a test when your peers have to rely on only what they can remember. The discovery of cheating can illicit strong emotional responses stemming from inequality between students, but I promise you,

student cheating can never compare to the impact structural inequality has on learning and education. Academic integrity only focuses on a very small part of a very large system of cheating that makes ‘fairness’ impossible.

Academic integrity brands itself as the pursuit of fairness (myth), rigor (dog whistle), and the assurance of merit-based (privileged) credentials (capitalist tokens). The analogies we use to talk about cheating are… strange. For example, in higher ed circles you’ll hear a lot about “maintaining a level playing field.” That one’s not terrible, however, you might also hear that cheating devalues the achievements of the students who don’t cheat, like a currency deflation, or that cheating dilutes institutional credentials, as though we’re baking something in recipe. All of these analogies are weird and false.

Education is not, and never has been, a level playing field. It perpetuates the same social forces that govern most of our institutions: white supremacy, sexism, ableism, racial capitalism, transphobia, and jingoist propaganda. Here’s just a few examples of how the educational systems create inequality for students. Just one of these is more than enough to explode the idea of a level playing field:

  • Public education is more racially segregated today than during legal segregation under Jim Crow.

  • K-12 schools are largely funded through property taxes, which means that wealthy neighborhoods have much larger budgets which translate into nicer facilities, higher teacher pay, and more programs and activities for students.

  • Poorer and less white school tend to have more police in them, who tend to arrest Black and Latinx students at higher rates, especially Black girls.

  • Students are still expected to learn when they are hungry, unhoused, and don’t have access to healthcare

  • Many students can’t afford textbooks, basic necessities like menstrual products, or reliable transportation that make going to class possible

  • Most schools don’t have adequate, or sometimes any, services or infrastructure for students with disabilities or mental illness

  • Trans and non-binary students often don’t have bathrooms, nurses, or teachers that understand or support them

  • Colleges still use legacy status (your parents or grandparents attended a college so you get priority) and large donations as criteria for admissions

  • Undocumented students face enormous risk (family separation, deportation, and violence) when interacting with certain school officials

  • The racist prison industrial complex targets people of color for arrest and incarceration, then colleges and universities exclude or surveil students who have criminal records

This isn’t level playing field. This is a minefield that people have to survive, and some of them don’t.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the US, there’s more than enough funding for every student to get a fully funded and supported education. We choose scarcity on purpose. It’s a continuing policy decision; part of it is debating over funding, but part of it is believing that some students fundamentally don’t deserve investment. Even if the Department of Education swapped budgets with the Department of Defense, I’m still not convinced that Black, disabled, poor, LGBTQ, or undocumented students would get the same support as white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis/het, and documented students.

When any group of college students come together, they bring with them the legacy of every after-school tutor their parents paid for and every support system that held them along the way. The also bring every time they went to sleep hungry and every racist School Resource Officer encounter.

There can never be a level playing field the way we teach. Pretending there is erases structural privilege and oppression. Fairness is a myth designed to make people who have privilege feel better about having it. If unfair advantage is cheating, schools cheat students exponentially more than students cheat schools.

If you care about some form of equity or even attempting something like fairness in education, let go of academic integrity as a priority. If we took the funding, time, and resources we spend trying to police academic integrity and diverted it towards making sure every student is fed and housed, we’d be a lot closer to educational equity.

Rethinking what it means to cheat means you have to unpack what assessment means, what learning means, and then things get messy and, honestly, a little scary. That’s good. Part of the practices and culture of academic integrity stem from reenacting trauma from previous educational experiences, attempting to control other people because we’re scared, and punishing people as a way to reinforce feeling smart. There’s more to it than that, but in the same way we don’t talk about how most people cheat, we also don’t talk about the psychological motivations for enforcing anti-cheating polices or using draconian technologies like TurnItIn or remote test proctoring software.

If we center compassion, liberation, and exploration as core to learning, if we enact these ideas with justice-oriented practices, if we are gentle and loving with each other, most of the apparatuses of academic integrity don’t makes sense anymore. This kind of education is possible. We just have to be brave enough to choose it.

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