Cheating Pays

by: Joel B. Wolowelsky

Cheating Pays

Joel B. Wolowelsky

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 7, 1, 1993. Appears here with permission.

Some time ago, an acquaintance related to me an incident that disturbed him very much. His daughter, a fourth grade yeshiva student, had noticed that she had received ten points more than she deserved on a recent test. She brought the fact to the attention of her teacher, who thanked her and promptly lowered her recorded grade by ten points. “Can you imagine that!” he complained. “That teacher taught my daughter a terrible lesson: “It doesn’t pay to be honest.”
I was a bit taken aback by his response, and even more so when many students to whom I related the story expressed agreement. Didn’t they all understand that the teacher had in fact taught the student one of life’s most important lessons: Indeed, it doesn’t pay to be honest.
What an appalling mistake it would have been to suggest that crime doesn’t pay, that all the students who cheat will get caught, that one can’t get rich by stealing. Everyone knows that crime often pays, that major criminals (even those who are well-known to the public) live in very large and nice homes, that most students who cheat don’t get caught – and that their marks are often higher than those who studied hard for the exam. Why should anyone try to teach something that is patently false?
What message would the teacher have sent had she not reduced the grade by ten points? Aside from the false lesson that it pays to be honest, she would have declared that it’s alright to lie and steal in order to reward someone whose actions you like.
The lie of course would be the false grade. Why should an honest person get ten points higher than he or she earned on this or any other test? This was not a test of honesty. The stealing, quite obviously, would be the cheating of the other students of their earned standing in class.
Grades should reflect mastery of the course.* There may be a place on the transcript or report card for a grade in honesty, deportment, character or the like. Indeed, these may be more important ratings than the marks in any academic subject. But the grade in an academic subject is not meant to reflect that. It was disturbing to hear the view that “no one would be hurt by letting her keep the ten points.” Students who had earned an honest grade would have been robbed of the acknowledgement that a true grade should express. The whole system of academic integrity would have been hurt.
But if it pays to cheat, why be honest? The answer is a simple one. If we cheat, we become crooks. We lose self respect, the respect of those who we ourselves value, and the respect of the Torah, which says “lo tignov” in a most unambiguous way. This is the lesson we wish to communicate. And like most important messages, it’s harder to sell than would be a lie.
Nehama Leibowitz has a most interesting anecdote on this issue. She relates how, once, when she came to a kollel to deliver her regular shiur, she began by asking how we know that it is forbidden to lie. The lomdus expressed by the members of the kollel was impressive, she said. Some learned it from a kal vehomer from other halakhot; some related it to the prohibition to bear false witness or the injunction to stay away from false things; others had more convoluted reasonings. But none could recall the uncomplicated language of Vayikra 19:11, “Lo tishakru.”
On the other hand, she continued, when she asked if anyone knew the laws of eved Ivri (the Hebrew slave), most were able to quickly draw charts on the board, compare eved Ivri to eved Kenanni (the Canaanite slave), etc. How did this happen? she asked. Few students had to deal with an eved Ivri on a daily basis, but all presumably had to overcome more than once the temptation to lie.
The answer, she suggested, reflects a truism. When, as students, they learned the verse in Vayikra, their rebbe probably said: “Does everyone understand? It’s forbidden to lie.” Of course, everyone nodded in agreement. Who was going to suggest that lying was acceptable? On the other hand, when they learned about the eved Ivri, the shiur probably spread over a number of days and the blackboard was surely filled with charts that the current kollel members were now able to reproduce. Is it a wonder that they remembered the one and not the other?
The fourth grade teacher in the opening story had indeed made a mistake– but it was not in reducing the honest student’s grade by ten points. It was in not making a “big deal” in the class about the importance of being an honest person, in not explaining why it would have been dishonest to not deduct the points, in not bringing out the conflict of feelings that the student was experiencing, and in not helping the students commit to memory the lesson that while crime may pay in this world, “lo tishakru” is the standard for being a Torah person in the world in which we want to live. This is the type of challenging lesson that all educators must attempt to convey.

For more on this topic, see the author’s article: “Reducing Grades as a Means of Imposing Discipline,” Ten Da’at, 4,1, Fall 1989.