Creative Consequences: A Critique

May 3, 2019

“And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.”
—Psalm 106:15

The temptation of cheating represents one of the most basic challenges for a finite man living in God’s world: Do I reach out and grasp what has not been given to me, or remain content within my limitations? One interpretation of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden says that the knowledge of good and evil was not something that would have been withheld from them forever, but something they would have grown into. They sinned by taking a shortcut to knowledge they had not earned and were not ready for.

Likewise, a student who cheats wants the fruit of knowledge (a good grade) without the thing the grade signifies (maturity, dominion, hard work). Such a student believes that grades, not virtue, are the point of school, and cheating is just a riskier alternative to studying that will achieve exactly the same end. If his parents and teachers act as if the most important thing about high school is getting into a “good” college and then getting a “good” job, should we really be surprised if the student is tempted to take the path of least resistance? If, however, a student is consistently taught that virtue is the point of education, he might be more likely to realize the real test is not the one on his desk, but the test of character it represents. A high test score is not always a mark of high virtue, and in fact it may be the opposite. Cheating on the written test is intentionally flunking a much more important question, the same one faced by Adam and Eve, which lies behind every trial of patience: “What will you do to obtain what you want? Work and wait in faith, or grab?”

I recently had to confront a student for attempting to cheat on a quiz, and afterward, feeling the conversation could have gone better, I reached out to friends for advice on how to handle the problem. One told me that “when it comes to conventional academic crimes, conventional academic chastisements are best.” This rang true to me, but I have had to spend some time pondering why. My natural inclination runs to creative consequences: memorization, manual labor, essays on The Prestige or Crime and Punishment. If this student is already so comfortable with dishonesty, it certainly seems like it will take something unconventional to disrupt that comfort. Young parents can feel a similar difficulty in giving consequences to their children; we want our correction to be poignant and memorable. But what the student or child needs is correction that invites him back into normality, back into the way things are.

Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth:
therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:
for he maketh sore, and bindeth up:
he woundeth, and his hands make whole.
(Job 5:17-18)

The man whom God corrects is happy (beatus/blessed), but what about the man whom Mr. Bell corrects? Does my correction both make sore and bind up? What would that look like? Virgil is this kind of teacher at the end of Inferno canto 30, when he harshly reproves Dante for showing too much interest in a quarrel between two damned souls:

I was intent on listening to them
when this was what my master said: “If you
insist on looking more, I’ll quarrel with you!”

And when I heard him speak so angrily,
I turned around to him with shame so great
that it still stirs within my memory.
(30.130-135)

Virgil does not groom Dante’s sense of shame in pursuit of a teachable moment, but immediately forgives him, enjoining him, “release yourself from all remorse / and see that I am always at your side.” Dante then mirrors the language of Job 5:

The very tongue that first had wounded me,
sending the color up in both my cheeks,
was then to cure me with its medicine
(31.1-3)

Virgil’s correction and forgiveness are both given without delay. No guilt farming, no manipulation, no prolonged suffering. His “release yourself from all remorse” sounds a lot like “go, and sin no more.” Virgil does not remain aloof, but promises to stay at his student’s side and guide him into truth. A petty teacher keeps a record of wrongs, but a gracious master removes transgression as far as the east is from the west. Correction that blesses a student should restore him to order and welcome him back into the community.

I gave my student the school’s conventional academic chastisement for cheating, and I haven’t looked back. I will continue to eschew creative punishments in the future. For one thing, I want my students to know that no temptation has seized them except what is common to man. Giving them the punishments common to man reinforces that they are normal young men with normal problems, problems which do not merit puzzled head-scratching or creativity on my part.

I also want my students to know that I am a man under authority, just as they are. It is not their place to take from the tree before the fruit is earned, and neither is it my place to ignore, circumvent, or tweak the prescribed consequences to pursue my desired outcome. It doesn’t make much sense telling them to seek the old paths if I regularly resort to inventing new solutions to age-old problems.

How to fight future temptations to cheat? Stay at your student’s side, always demonstrating in your words and your priorities that virtue is more important than grades. Fight materialism with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. For a materialist, cheating makes perfect sense, since cheating is simply clever manipulation of material, by material, for material gain. In reality, cheating is perfect nonsense, for what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? If you teach your students that they are accidental blobs of soulless material, soon enough they will begin to act like it. If you teach them that they are priests and kings capable of ruling themselves and judging angels, God willing, they will someday inherit the knowledge of good and evil.

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Matt Bell teaches wisdom and virtue in a class called “Spanish” at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, TN. He sings and writes shape note music and drives long distances to worship in old country churches as often as possible. 

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