The beginning chapters of James Lang’s Cheating Lessons are subtle in their cultural critique. Lang’s approach is exacting – if steeped in the rhetoric of “dispositional” vs. “contextual” factors of cheating – in that he addresses the elusive source causes of cheating instead of blindly taking aim in its direction. No, cheating is not the enemy, but rather the culturally rooted individual (“dispositional”) and environmental (“contextual”) causes of cheating become Lang’s target. If I had to critique these opening pages for anything it would be that the author refuses to come right out and say it: the problem with cheating is the problem with any educational apparatus when it’s mapped onto a highly classist and ethically confused society. It’s an issue of where we place our value as much as it is about our intersubjective evaluation.
Where Lang really hits the nail on the head is in his deconstruction of this process of evaluation… evaluation not on the part of the teacher but the learner. The author places himself in the shoes of a rational student (students are, too, rational beings), one who, when faced with a task or is assigned one, evaluates the situation as it compares to what he knows to be “appropriate” to him and his environment – how appropriate is the difficulty, the expectations, the outcome, the recompense. In this way the student’s perception of what is “realistic” factors in, his/her self-efficacy – a socially, as much as individually, defined conception – leading toward ‘rational behaviors,’ not worst of which might be to cheat (Lang 48-49). Lang takes the case of an instructor who is perceived to be unfair: “Cheating becomes a logical response to such a situation” (49, my emphasis). The reason I stress the terms “logical” and “rational” is to highlight how students, given the right dispositional and contextual factors as well as teaching environment, naturalize cheating in reaction to what are often arbitrary (or at least poorly explained) and sometimes domineering requirements. As Lang’s examination of how a student’s peers – his/her immediate social surroundings – influence cheating rates indicates, there is a culture of cheating that behaves much like an oppositional force, political or otherwise, except it’s on a slightly smaller scale. Cheating can be both “rational” and defiant, the logical reaction to inequality for which the school and, too often, the teacher, stand.