Fraud, fraud, fraud... Students should be studying and debating morality

Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Sunbeam, Global Crossing, Xerox, Bernie Madoff, AIG, Lehman Brothers… We’ve uncovered a LOT of accounting fraud among major U.S. corporations this past decade.

But, as bad as things are here, things are apparently ten times worse in China, where hucksters — some even willing to kill infants with fake baby formula for a quick buck — abound. (My in-laws frequently watch Chinese TV health shows, some of which strike me as quackery.)

The New York Times reports many examples of academic fraud. It’s not just the students. It’s the professors too. And it’s not just a handful of anecdotes. It’s systemic and cultural. Some excerpts:

“If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit.”

Last month a collection of scientific journals published by Zhejiang University in Hangzhou reignited the firestorm by publicizing results from a 20-month experiment with software that detects plagiarism. The software, called CrossCheck, rejected nearly a third of all submissions on suspicion that the content was pirated from previously published research. In some cases, more than 80 percent of a paper’s content was deemed unoriginal.

A recent government study [shows] a third of the 6,000 scientists at six of the nation’s top institutions admitted they had engaged in plagiarism or the outright fabrication of research data. In another study of 32,000 scientists last summer by the China Association for Science and Technology, more than 55 percent said they knew someone guilty of academic fraud.

In July, Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with satellite branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students. Although school administrators declined to discuss the nature of the misconduct, it was serious enough to withhold degrees from each of the programs’ 400 students. Given a chance to receive their M.B.A.’s by taking another exam, all but two declined, school officials said.

Arthur Lu, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Mr. Lu, who started this semester on a master’s degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”

We need to teach let students learn ethics and philosophy in schools. It shouldn’t be preachy. Teachers shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers or even advocate for any specific moral position. Kids should be introduced to the ideas of various great thinkers, like John Rawls, and then encouraged to debate morality in the context of hypothetical moral dilemmas and actual moral dilemmas they encounter in their lives and classroom. While grappling with various moral arguments and discussing them with their classmates, kids will come up with pretty good answers on their own… answers that will help guide them through life. The very process of thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong also fosters metacognition, a skill of great value.

I’m even more concerned about my kids growing up to be good, decent, caring, contributing members of society than about their academic achievement. It scares me that — no matter how caring and thoughtful my kids grow up to be — they and I live in a selfish, fraud-filled world. Morality is a legitimate academic subject.

If all students were given regular opportunities to wrestle with moral arguments in school, people would make better individual decisions in their lives, and the world would be a better place.

Posted by James on Friday, October 08, 2010