Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Down the tubes. Honestly disturbing.

There was an article about fraud in China and how plagiarism and cheating are commonplace. There was one very shocking paragraph:

Ask any Chinese student about academic skullduggery and the response is startlingly nonchalant. Lu Xiaoda, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, considered a plum of the country’s college system, said it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Mr. Lu, who last month started on a masters’ degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”
This guy is at Stanford??!? At first I was horrified, but then, at least he has the guts to admit it.
This is just so deeply disappointing. I started wonder if my friends from Tsinghua engaged in this kind of dishonest behavior as well.  (I think Mr. Lu needs to take a hard look in the mirror and consider his past actions. Does he even think this is shameful or inappropriate in any way? That somehow the ends justify the means? He opened up about this, which at least gets a discussion going. But he should also recognize that that sort of behavior won't be tolerated at Stanford).

Even if you tell me that "everyone in China does it," that's still not an excuse for cheating. Some kind of ethical jujistu is going on here for people to be able to live this way, and it's very problematic if the system is built in a way to force, compel, or encourage students to resort to academic dishonesty. But I don't know if that absolves the individual of personal responsibility.

[Update from summer 2010: My friend Phil Hannam, who attended Tongji University for his Master's degree, confirmed that among his classmates, virtually everyone cheated on the assignments. He was disturbed and frustrated by this phenomenon, because he was actually doing the work in full.]

The other side of the cultural coin:

At Stanford, we have an Honor Code (link here), which applies to all our work as students. The University and the faculty treat us like adults, and it is up to us to hold up our end of the bargain. For examinations, no professors or TA's are in the room monitoring the test: they sit in another room only to answer questions. They respect us and take us at our word.

Honor Code  
A. The Honor Code is an undertaking of the students, individually and collectively:
1. that they will not give or receive aid in examinations; that they will not give or receive unpermitted aid in class work, in the preparation of reports, or in any other work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading;

2. that they will do their share and take an active part in seeing to it that others as well as themselves uphold the spirit and letter of the Honor Code.

B. The faculty on its part manifests its confidence in the honor of its students by refraining from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions to prevent the forms of dishonesty mentioned above. The faculty will also avoid, as far as practicable, academic procedures that create temptations to violate the Honor Code.

C. While the faculty alone has the right and obligation to set academic requirements, the students and faculty will work together to establish optimal conditions for honorable academic work.

That is why Honor Code violations are a serious matter: a community built upon mutual respect has been created here. If a person chooses to ignore these basic tenets and betrays that trust, then the fabric of this enterprise begins unraveling.

This article highlights a serious problem: if there is such a contempt for rules in China, no wonder people grow up to be fraudulent. It's that mentality: everyone is competing, everyone is getting advantages, I can't be left behind, so I will cheat and make sure that I grab my share of the pie!

This kind of mentality is disastrous for a society. Without basic trust in society, how can anything productive get done? This kind of competition seems poisonous.

Now it's all about making the quick buck: everyone else is running along headlong, so you do what you can to turn a profit in the short run. Moreover, it leaves a very nasty relationship between businesses and clients:

For businesses, it's how many corners can I cut, and how much profit can I wring out of the client, without getting caught.
For consumers, their mentality is, how cheaply can I buy things, without getting poisoned. It's deeply problematic.

In some ways, that seems like a race to the bottom. It is hard to build true and lasting value if everything is undergirded by short-term thinking, trickery or fraud, and the consideration of only the present -- which seems like what much "development" of the Chinese economy is based on today.
I want quality, and I am willing to pay for it -- but how can I even trust what the quality is?


A last thought on these issues:

Moral rot starts from the basics. If you don't even follow elementary rules of conduct and disregard ethics on the small things, then how can we expect you to make the right decision when something more important comes up? If you train yourself to ignore "right behavior" on a daily basis, then it eventually becomes habit. You will easily ignore justice, overlook fairness, discount the rights of others. You only think about yourself and getting what you want. It's not even the grand statement of "The rules be damned!" It's more like a silent, insidious understanding that rules are empty and made to be ignored, instead of realizing that they reflect common principles of decency that we need for society to function in a just manner. Cheating and fraud are rendered 小事, "no big deal", and the mental calculus of dishonesty becomes casual and commonplace.

I don't know if that's the kind of society that I would like to live in.

No comments: