Cheating: The Best Education?

The treatment of cheating in schools has puzzled me for many years. First, it’s not clear that it materially impacts many cheater’s performance. The Dunning-Kruger effect places serious limitations on the ability of the incompetent to capitalize on cheating. Cheating well is a skill and the people who could gain the most from cheating also lack the ability to do it well. I once let a guy cheat off me in college, allowing him ample time and viewing angles to get every single answer he wanted. I got a 96**. He got a 68. His explanation: “I thought you were wrong.” I remember this more than 30 years later for the pure brilliance of its metacognitive ineptitude.

The second puzzling aspect of the usual treatment of cheating is it’s one of the most valuable skills in life, and perhaps the most important driver of human progress. Standing on the shoulders of giants is as much an homage to cheating as to the brilliance of our predecessors. Cultural transmission, language acquisition, and implicit learning of all sorts occurs entirely through cheating: watching what others do and copying, consciously or otherwise. Your first day at work is spent watching how someone else does the job and copying them. As you progress, you research other companies in the industry and copy them (it’s called benchmarking so it sounds technical and legitimate). Nobody gets anywhere in life by continually reinventing the wheel. Success at any significant endeavor largely depends on correctly choosing whose ideas and practices to steal, whose to discard, and – for the more talented – adding something new and better.

To the extent education exists to prepare students for the life that follows (rather than just providing a generally recognized seal of approval and evidence of the ability to endure extensive mental torture which many employers find attractive), cheating well should be encouraged and taught rather than discouraged and punished. The most famous entrepreneurs and wealth creators in recent memory, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were both great cheaters. They each looked over the shoulder of Xerox, copied the best ideas and created something new. In school they would have been kicked out. No wonder Harvard’s most illustrious alumni tend to be the ones that dropped out.

Someday the current views of cheating may be looked upon as just as barbaric and misguided as pinning a scarlet letter on an adulterer. Until then try to do it well enough to maintain plausible deniability.

**Naturally, I thought the professor was wrong on 2 questions.

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2 thoughts on “Cheating: The Best Education?

  1. Pingback: Pseudo Random News and Comment | Mortality Sucks

  2. Pingback: Pseudo Random News and Comment | Mortality Sucks

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