Two major themes emerge early on in Part II of James Lang’s Cheating Lessons, themes that either complement or contradict each other depending on how one views it. In discussing Ken Bain’s research and the lessons that can be derived from it (What the Best College Teachers Do), the author pauses to stress the importance of asking “big questions” in class. Teachers and students alike share in the drive to answer life’s grandest conundrums – as Lang puts it, questions of “money and sex and morality” (63). These “big questions” are the impetus of every class no matter the subject, they are the driving force behind much of human pursuit and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to contextualize their subject in relation to this existential inquiry. Lang then piggyback’s on this proposal to declare, “…we have to first help students see the ways in which our course material connects meaningfully to our lives, or can help us solve problems or enrich our lives” (Lang 70). I interpret this to mean that on top of rooting the material in the grander philosophical debate on the phenomena of existence the teacher should also narrow the focus of the material’s aims to address the student’s present and future every day lives. The latter task constitutes the “’applied’ nature of our disciplines,” whereas the former task serves their unapplied, or inapplicable, characteristics (Lang 72). There is a distinct difference between these two “themes” – of a teacher’s obligation to speak to either the student’s existential yearning or his/her need for practical knowledge – and yet it seems one begets the other. Lang is tracing the learning curve from the “big questions,” through our disciplines and teaching material, and into the life-practice of every day. Erase the center step and we simply have an apt definition of ethics. What the author is so skillfully mapping out is both an education of ethics and an ethics of education. From the recognition of self and our existence in the world we gain the will to act in that world. Our disciplines act as the filters and flavors of this flow. In being reminded of this, we should also be reminded of the ethical nature of education, or rather that education plays such an integral role in the ethical process that they quickly become synonymous.
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.