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By Dr. David B. Whitlock
So begins the first line of Hank Williams Sr.’s classic hit, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” And if your own cheatin’ heart won’t tell on you, someone else’s cheatin’ heart will. Or someone will connect the dots that place your cheatin’ heart in the crosshairs. It’s almost certain.
It’s that lure of the “almost,” the bet on the card that says, “You’re an exception; you can get by with it,” that entices the moral gambler to roll the dice.
But the odds are not in lady luck’s favor.
Just ask the recently arrested former and current students at the prestigious Great Neck North High School (ranked among the top 100 best high schools in the U.S., the school boasts of Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and Olympic figure skating champion Sarah Hughes among its graduates) in Long Island, New York.
These students allegedly paid Sam Eshaghoff, 19, a Great Neck North graduate and now a student at Emory University, between $1,500 and $2,500, to take the SAT exam for them. He did so with great success.
But faculty at the high school had heard rumors that some students had paid another student to take the SAT for them. Then administrators noticed large discrepancies between these six students’ academic performance and their SAT scores.
I could almost hear ol’ Hank Jr. crooning, “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you,” when I saw the handcuffed Eshaghoff and the other students covering their heads with their jackets as they were being led to the police station.
A cheatin’ heart lurks within each of us, and given the right circumstances, it emerges, muddling our decisions, dragging us into the murky moral mire that begins comfortably enough with dismissing caution, gradually descends into covering mistakes, and ends with perfuming the stench of wrong doing. And stench inevitably draws flies, flies that are attracted to a decaying, cheating heart, a cheating heart that will tell on you, sooner or later.
Cheating rivets our culture to the degree that you may feel cheated if you don’t cheat: If everybody in your reference group is doing it, you may feel left behind if you don’t, penalized for playing by the rules. “If the opportunity is there, take it,” our culture tells us, “regardless of whether it’s right or wrong or who gets hurt.” One of the students at Great Neck North High School said in a report on NBC’s The Today Show, “If they (the accused students) had the money on hand, and I guess they can, if they have the opportunity, it’s just not that surprising.”
I feel for those students who buckled under the pressure to achieve. They wanted something good, but went about it in the wrong way. They were trying desperately to be something they weren’t by claiming something they did not deserve.
We’ve all been there, more or less, in greater or lesser degrees. David Callahan maintains, in his book, “The Cheating Culture,” that more Americans are cheating and feeling less guilty about it. And Dan Ariely’s research in behavioral economics reveals that when people in our reference group cheat, we are more likely to cheat. Both truths are causes for concern: Those youth maturing in a culture where cheating is increasingly becoming the acceptable norm will be the ones leading change - for good or bad - in American politics and government, as if it could get worse than it already is.
Cheating didn’t begin with the United States; it’s as old as the oldest story in the Hebrew Bible. Eve bought the lie that God was cheating her of pleasure, and in seeking an end run to gratification, she tried cheating God of forbidden fruit, a choice that Adam seconded, landing them both outside the garden of gardens, hiding their shame with fig leaves.
We would do well to remember those original cheaters whenever we are tempted to cut corners in wrong ways. For if you’ve been there and done that (and bought the T-shirt with a capital “C” emblazoned on it), or if only you’ve seen the harm it does to others - you surely don’t want a cheatin’ heart to tell on you.
Editor’s note: Contact David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., at email@example.com or visit his website, www.davidbwhitlock.com.