Why Cheating Sucks: The Merits of Academic Honesty

It was tempting because nobody would find out.

I also needed the money. And it was one paper.

I remember the moment clearly, standing at my locker and contemplating the offer.

$20 for a paper.

My friend, desperate for a decent grade, asked me to write his English paper in exchange for payment. He wasn’t even looking for a good grade. He just wanted a B. I could crank out a B level paper in 45 minutes… maybe even less.

I had an argument inside my mind.

“It’s English class and he wants to be an auto mechanic. Does it really matter if he does it or not?”

“You need the money.”

“It’s a dumb grade and it doesn’t matter. Plus, he’s your friend.”

“It’s this one time.”

“It’s wrong.”

It was the last voice I couldn’t get over. I told my friend I couldn’t write his paper.

Just a Stupid Class… But So Much More

In the grand scheme of sin, cheating in a class probably feels pretty low on the list of “bad high school sins.” Unless you are in a class that grades on a curve, it might not seem like anyone is hurt by cheating (or as your school calls it, “academic dishonesty”). Your teacher isn’t hurt, your friends aren’t hurt, and you get a good grade. If anything, it can feel like people will be happier with you.

But that’s the problem with sin. It always starts out as “not so bad.” We reason that nobody is hurt and that, really, this is just something that everyone does. When it comes to academic dishonesty, we might even reason that we are more clever than sinful. If we can get the answers to that test, plagiarize a paper, or find another way to get a good grade (other than putting in the work), shouldn’t we do that?

Even if nobody seems to be hurt, cheating is destructive to our integrity and our relationship with God. Worse, it can degrade our decision making over time. Remember, sin never starts out as “so bad,” but every big sin had a small beginning.

We Are What We Do

Repeated enough, behaviors become habits. In the spiritual life, we call these habits “virtues” when they are good and lead to holiness and “vices” when they are bad and spiritually destructive. A person who lives a life of virtue is called “virtuous” and a person who lives a life marked by vice is “vicious.” It’s important to note that something that is “good” might not seem good at the time, and something that is “bad” might not seem bad at the time. We look at action in terms of eternal impact, not immediate feeling.

We can say all of the right things, but vice and virtue are about action, and we become what we do. We have a word for people who say one thing but do another — we call them hypocrites. And while all of us may be hypocritical sometimes (even St. Paul wrote that he found himself doing things he didn’t want to do in Romans 7:15-20), there is a difference between the times we fall short and intentionally saying one thing by doing another.

Academic honesty (or dishonesty) is a simple doorway to vice and virtue. Since we want to cultivate virtue so we can become holy. If you are are struggling with academic honesty or find yourself tempted to cheat, there are three things you can remember and do:

1) Remind yourself it is OK to fail… as long as you learn from it. You didn’t study for a test. You procrastinated on a paper. You didn’t ask for help when you should have asked. Failure is looming. This is where we need to be courageous and remember that it is OK to fail sometimes, as long as we learn from it. No person will be perfect. We cheat because we fear failure, but academic dishonesty just postpones failure. Eventually, our refusal to accept the things we are doing wrong will catch up with us.

2) Recognize your actions still might hurt someone. We often think of academic dishonesty or cheating as a “victimless crime.” This isn’t always true, though. Some classes you take and assignments you receive may be graded on a curve or modify a passing grade to be above the class average. In this case, your (falsely) inflated grade may throw off the numbers and impact someone who actually did the work… or who was at least honest.

3) We represent something bigger than ourselves. You represent Jesus to your friends and academic dishonesty is a great way to show them Jesus doesn’t matter. Even if your friends don’t think it is a big deal, whether you realize it or not, they hold you to a higher standard. As a believer in Jesus and disciple, they expect different behavior from you and that’s a good thing. This is how you witness the faith to your friends. If you are so concerned about a grade that you need to cheat, though, it tells your friends you are far less concerned with living as an honest disciple and more concerned about yourself.

Building Virtue

While avoiding sin is important, we need to practice virtue to truly safeguard ourselves. Just like small sins turn big, small, virtuous actions also grow. Practicing academic honesty will help you grow in three key areas of virtue:

1) Temperance. By choosing to moderate our time, we grow in virtue. We are probably tempted to cheat when we feel unprepared. We are often unprepared because we aren’t spending our time well; when we stop our scroll and put our phone in another room to study, we are growing in virtue.

2) Prudence. There may be opportunities when cheating seems easy. Prudence helps us to make clear decisions. By choosing wise, or prudent, actions we grow in virtue.

3) Courage. We also need to call out sin when we see it. You may find yourself having some tough conversations with friends when you challenge their academic dishonesty. Courage is a central virtue for every Catholic; we can practice it in small ways when it comes to academic honesty.

I’m glad I didn’t take that $20 for the paper. I needed the money, but that money wasn’t worth the potential consequences I faced at school and definitely wasn’t worth the eternal consequences. Whether it is a midterm project, a final exam, or anything else in between, remember that academic honesty isn’t just about following rules — it is about building virtue, avoiding vice, and becoming the person Jesus is calling you to be.