As children, we are taught not to lie, not to steal. We are also taught that achievement and success are our goals and, in more affluent segments of society, our birthright. Too often, those goals contradict our childhood lessons, perhaps never more so than in school. Success usually means, “getting into college.” Sometimes it can even mean getting into a specific college. For those who define success in these terms, achievement, even in pre-school is thought to contribute to that goal and an education is merely a tool to attain it. (Never mind for a moment that going to college is a beginning, not an end; never mind that education is not a commodity; never mind that there is inherent value in becoming educated.) Moreover, getting into college is frequently seen as the purchased prize of thirteen or more years of life. It is what we delude ourselves is “every opportunity and advantage.”

Second graders are assigned by their teacher to build a castle. Next morning, fifteen castles arrive at school. Some are perfectly symmetrical, their sugar cube turrets and toothpick banners glinting in the sunlight. Others look as if the dragon arrived before the drawbridge was pulled up; those are the castles the students built themselves. What is my responsibility as a parent? To allow my child the pain and satisfaction of a crumbling castle, or the artificial and entirely illusory pride—often called “self-esteem”—of walking into class with a perfect project?

Ninth grade, otherwise known as “when it starts to count.” Early in the semester, the intimidating English teacher assigns a paper on Macbeth. I was an English major and, as luck would have it, in college I wrote a long research paper on the play. I cannot help but “help.” My daughter is a good writer, but not this good. The teacher is impressed; my daughter gets an ‘A.’ The teacher responds by demanding more of my daughter because he expects more. She gains confidence from his attention and does well in the class. What have I taught her? What has she learned?

Junior year. This is where it all comes together; the toughest classes, the grades that colleges scrutinize: “the critical year.” My parents are anxious; they want me to go to Yale and they’ve worked hard and made sacrifices so that I can. They never say so, but I know they will be disappointed if I don’t make it. I owe it to them, and I’m worried. How can I live with myself if I don’t take advantage of the opportunities they’ve given me? My research paper on the Treaty of Versailles is going to determine my grade. I also have tons of work in my other classes and baseball practice or a game every day. I take a paper from the Internet, turn it in, and get the grade I need. I’ve always been a good student and have never cheated before, so doesn’t the end justify the means?

At least as pervasive as the misguided quest for success is our instinct for diagnosing dishonesty as an illness. Implicit in the diagnosis is a rationalization and abrogation of responsibility. Did the baseball player gamble on his team? Well, yes, but he suffers an addiction to gambling. Did the young NBA star snort cocaine and wreck his car? Yes, but he had an unhappy childhood and suddenly more money than he knew how to spend. Did Tiger Woods betray his family? Yes, but he has a sexual addiction. Did the student cheat on his test? Yes, but she was under enormous “pressure” to earn the love of her demanding mother; besides, she didn’t think the teacher was doing a good job. Even Rush Limbaugh has an addiction that explains why he’s Rush Limbaugh.

When these two strands of moral prestidigitation collude the message is grim: win the prize at any cost while justifying why we must. Despite being the most grievous offense in any list of rules, cheating is common; it is the dirty secret of the independent school world. The SAT preparation industry is enormous; for the right price there are companies that will virtually guarantee the coveted 1600. Instant “Educational Consultants” proliferate in big cities and wealthy suburbs, and it is hard at times to determine if it is the student or his “team” applying to college. The national hysteria compels us to explain to our children how “tough it is out there,” why having the extra edge is so important; this unrelenting consumerism suffocates our children in a moral vacuum.

How do we teach children that the way they pursue the prize is more important than the prize itself? Money, power, and their shiny accoutrement accompany us wherever we go and the apparent rewards of “success” inundate us from our first moments of consciousness—or unconsciousness if our parents insist upon playing Mozart to us in the womb. When nothing seems to be enough, when we will do anything to protect our children from anything resembling failure, is it any wonder they look blankly at us when we tell them that integrity is their most precious possession?

Jon Maksik, Ph.D., served as headmaster of the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1987 until his retirement in 2006.


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Comments (3)


  1. Posted by: Cbusmama

    Wow. Really needed this article today. Thanks for the intellectual butt-kicking.

  2. Who doesn’t love a piece that uses the word “prestidigitation” sans irony and self concious trepidation?

  3. Posted by: BrooklynGrand

    Maybe this is true in many places, but I think it all comes down to parenting or the lack there of and I also think that it is a class issue. The wealthier you are, the more likely it is that you want to stay there, so lying, cheating and stealing becomes common place, unfortunately.

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