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Honorable dishonesty: cultural differences in cheating from the U.S. to Thailand

When I wrote my first English essay at my U.S. high school, I struggled with citations—not the formats but when and what exactly to cite. The teacher said that if I took any ideas from another individual, including direct quotes and paraphrasing, I’m supposed to cite them as sources. I was confused because I thought that everything I knew, wrote, and said—not only the ideas, but all the words and sentence structures—came from someone else. Then, how far back did I have to dig to find the true authorities so I could do them justice when citing them? How should I know if my citation was the right one—what if someone else had this same idea first, but the author I read wasn’t aware of it? 

In Thailand, where I’m from, students in both public and private schools never write essays—neither in Thai nor English (maybe students attending international schools and college students get to do that, but not us). This is probably because all college entrance exams are in multiple-choice format, so only rote memorization is emphasized—the smartest memorize the most. I don’t know at which point I came to a realization of what and when to cite, but coming to the U.S. for high school and college forced me to figure it out and acclimate to these standards of academic honesty—something that was relatively unknown to me in Thailand. Now, reflecting on it, I have seen this same cultural difference of academic honesty play out in different ways along my educational path. 

For instance, in Thai schools, you aren’t supposed to say that you love learning, know more than a standard person would know, or pay that much attention in class. Doing so could lead your peers to think that you are nerdy and the teachers to view you as arrogant and trying to be smarter than them, regardless of how humbly you try to express yourself. Growing up, I learned to pay less attention to the teachers and to talk to friends during classes so they would play with me. People who love to study don’t have friends. I remember in seventh grade, when no one in class would answer the questions, I tried to answer, but the teacher just ignored me because I simply had already answered too much. Though no one else would ever answer, I was still ignored, the class was quiet, and the teacher continued by simply answering her own questions (the answers to any of these questions are definite and you are either right or wrong, so that’s probably why no one wanted to answer them). I was so surprised to learn from many Carls that they love learning, discuss many issues outside of class, try to never miss a class, and love to sit in on classes just out of pure joy, even after graduation. I didn’t know that it’s acceptable for a person to tell the world that they love to study and always want to learn more! 

I also only recently realized that what many of my friends here find interesting and often unfathomable is the issue relating to cheating in Thailand. To remind you of the context here, we’re talking about both public and private Thai academic settings, where the emphasis is heavily put on rote memorization and multiple-choice exams. We’re dealing with a world in which your answers are either right or wrong—no explanation, argument formulation, or critical thinking skills are involved. In this world, textbooks, regardless of the authors’ credentials, are worshipped (failing to put books on higher shelves or accidentally stepping on any books adversely affects your learning ability). 

In this environment, cheating in Thai schools is not only tolerated but implicitly encouraged by both classmates and teachers. If you’re the so-called smart student, helping your friends cheat on exams or homework allows you to almost canonize yourself—you become this loving angelic saint of all friends in need. Your peers talk about you sweetly. The praise of your name expands to the edge of the classroom and beyond. More and more people want to be friends with you, after hearing about your virtues and sacrifices. They often offer you, in return, the answers for different exams they got from other smart people and, if possible, more exam questions in advance (Thai schools use the same multiple-choice exams, so when one class takes it, they have the resources to share with the others). 

Do the teachers know about this? Most teachers know, but they don’t do anything. Not to mention the high chance that they also did this as students, they don’t want to get in an argument with their favorite smart students who share their knowledge and help others. It is as if these are lessons on how to survive in that society, how to make connections, and how to collaborate. As a result, some students send photos or signal the correct answers during exams to their friends out of fear that their peers will talk badly about them and that their teachers might view them as insensitive or not caring. They imagine themselves in a position of someone in need of help, try to understand them, and simply cheat.

What if you don’t have answers to share or are not considered one of those smart kids? You can form a union with other students who are in the same situation as you. This union actually contains the majority of the student population. With this much authority, you can mentally and physically excommunicate that one smart kid until they show an interest, driven by their need for friends, to share their resources with your community so that you allow them to be a part of your group. They subtly alter the class dynamic so that it’s unbearable for those who don’t comply with the group. 

This might seem silly or strange for the people growing up here in the U.S., but it was very surprising to me when I first came to the U.S. to see schools, administrations, and even peers crack down so hard on academic dishonesty because I didn’t detect that culture in my school. I was never a supporter of academic dishonesty, but it’s just something that happens everywhere back in Thailand. The students are proud of being able to help others pass exams or pass them together. They sometimes have this division of labor that some study for one class while the others do the same for the other classes. These people, at reunions many years later, talk and laugh openly about these accomplishments. Whereas in America, academic dishonesty connotes criminality and doing a disservice to yourself and others, in Thailand, it is simply part of the culture people live in, a way to help each other and ourselves by means of the positive attributes of sharing and humility. Ultimately, I think this system of cheating and rote memorization may discourage critical thinking in Thailand, and hence may be propelled by the Thai government and monarchy, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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