Meet Anna Blum, 18 years old and every parent’s fantasy. In conversation, she is earnest, thoughtful, articulate, conscientious. She just graduated from Fieldston with honors grades and is now at Vassar, where she hopes to major in film studies. While in high school, she co-edited the Fieldston News, scored high on her SATs, and spent the summer interning at a nonprofit. Anna has her own website, where she posts the films she’s made and the poems she’s written and where she cites as role models Andy Warhol—and her own mother.
But Anna worries that she and her peers are a little bit lost when it comes to sorting right from wrong. When a friend told her, for example, that she took Adderall to enhance her performance on the SATs, she was, initially, shocked. “I’ll say, ‘That’s really wrong.’ And then I think, I had a very expensive SAT tutor. I haven’t done Adderall, but it’s sort of hard to see where the line is.”
The parents of her peers have one main goal, says Anna, which is to get their kids into a good college. And the two-track ethical system they teach follows from there. “The culture among parents is they say this is right and this is wrong,” Anna explains, but at the same time the parents always defend their own behavior as right.
Anna frets about what she and her friends will do when college is over and they’re forced to navigate real life. Everyone says you can’t get through medical school without using prescription drugs to stay awake. Everyone says a liberal-arts degree will make you unemployable unless you pull strings. “Once that becomes normal, baseline, that’s a shift we should be avoiding at all costs. If you weren’t raised a certain way, you have zero chance of making this work. To know that there’s one specific route to go down and it’s a really upsetting route, it’s very frightening to me.”
All the data show a generation far less ethical than their parents. According to a 2009 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51 percent of people age 17 or under agree that to get ahead, a person must lie or cheat, compared with 18 percent of people ages 25 to 40. Two years later, in another Josephson survey, 57 percent of high-schoolers agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Younger people are likelier than their elders to lie to parents, spouses, and bosses and to keep the change if a cashier makes an error in their favor.
But what Anna’s talking about is something slipperier than blatant cheating, a cut below sneaking answers into an exam, a hazy space where right and wrong seem porous. According to research by Denise Pope at Challenge Success, a nonprofit founded at Stanford, 95 percent of eleventh- and twelfth-graders say they have cheated in the past year, and a huge percentage of high-schoolers think that certain kinds of cheating are no big deal. Sixty-six percent, for example, say that receiving unpermitted help on an assignment is either not cheating or is cheating so unimportant that it barely counts. (Could this be payback for all those nights when you caved and helped your kid fill in the blanks on her math-facts drills?) Fifty-two percent say that copying a couple of sentences from someone else’s work is a trivial thing.
There’s lots of room to wiggle here. Especially when the transgressions get you where you want to be. Justifications are easier when the result of questionable behavior is the yearned-for A or the starring role or field position. “I don’t think they see their parents’ maneuvering as wrong. They assume that’s what it means to be in school,” a private-middle-school teacher told me. Watching their parents pull strings and bend rules on their behalf can prepare the kids for a vision of success in which winning is a zero-sum game, she says. “They learn how you do backdoor deals. How you do the meeting before the meeting and the meeting after the meeting.” They are invested in the way things are, an unequal system in which they are on top.
Social psychologists have demonstrated that rich people are likelier than poorer ones to lie, cheat, and disregard traffic rules and, more recently, that they are likelier to believe that social status is a matter of merit. (A study published in August in the Personality and Social Psychology bulletin showed that the wealthier a person is, the more he or she will agree with the following statement: “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people.”) So while all parents may ruthlessly put their children ahead of others, the children of affluent parents may be likelier to believe that ends justify means. A Harvard grad who was implicated in the university’s 2012 cheating scandal (in which scores of students submitted similar or verbatim answers on a take-home final) complained to Businessweek about the inconvenience of having to cooperate with the university’s ongoing investigation. “Dragging us into this … now, when we have financial obligations and jobs, seems very unfair.”