Stealing and Cheating and Learning

This is a classroom full of people who've never cheated in their life.


In high school, my English teacher encouraged us to cheat. I’ll never forget her lesson.


The idea of cheating is often equated to stealing. It’s stigmatized, for seemingly good reason. With theft, one person deprives another person of an object of some importance. Generally, the importance of the object comes from the amount of effort it took for the object to be acquired. If someone steals a piece of food, it’s a minor offense. In most cases, the food didn’t take extraordinary effort to be acquired. It’s easy to replace. If someone steals a car, it’s a bigger offense. The amount of money (which is invariably related to time) and effort in acquiring a car is huge and the amount of money and effort required in getting a new car is similarly huge.

Stealing something personal such as a computer is even more distinct: the information contained on a computer is accumulated over a huge span of time (often years) and, to compound the amount of data, the information is largely personal. A project contained on a computer is, if not copied, irreplaceable. Consider someone who spent months of their life working on a secret novel only to have it be forever lost when their laptop was stolen. It’s not just the money and effort it took to acquire the object like it is with a car. There is something unquantifiable lost forever with something so personal.

And then there is the uncertainty that comes when objects are stolen. This is even more intangible and no less real. When something gets stolen from you for the first time, your image of the world changes. You become more paranoid. You see danger in all places.

When I lived in China, during my last months there, I sat with my girlfriend-at-the-time in a field and stared up at the sky as it grew dark. When we sat up, we noticed that my girlfriend’s purse was gone. The thief was lucky: it contained a month’s salary, a smart phone, and both a Chinese citizen’s ID card as well as a passport she’d just recently acquired. For good reasons, my girlfriend was in tears. It was like a month had just been wasted in the blink of an eye. As if her way of communicating with the world had changed. Not only that, but replacing the IDs—especially the passport—was going to take a while. For good reasons, the government didn’t like going through the effort of creating a passport and having it disappear weeks later. Her trip abroad had been indefinitely postponed. In a way, that theft had cost her a semblance of freedom.

Though the effect it had on me couldn’t compare to what she had to go through, it still left its own scars. I’d been warned that petty crime was a problem, and I’d seen it once or twice on the street…but it’s another thing altogether when it happens to you. I still love China, but these things shake your perceptions. Not only that, it left me feeling personally weak. The fact that I couldn’t protect her. The fact that she could be hurt while I was so close. It seems dramatic, but it’s exactly how I felt.

I hate stealing.

RANT WARNING: We’re about to go way off topic. Go to the next bold section for some semblance of coherency.

I hate people that are fine with elements of the practice. Some of them argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s not as bad as violent crimes, sure. Poor people stealing apples saves lives, perhaps. I’m in a bad position to understand—I’ve never had to steal.

And then there’s stealing media, which everyone and their mother is fine with. I understand where people come from when they talk about stealing media. “Musicians can make money in other ways.” “I’m promoting them.” “I never would have bought this otherwise.” But like theft, most people can’t understand it until it happens to them personally. Theft isn’t just the object being stolen—it’s an element of their independence. Giving away your clothing to a donation is not the same as coming back to find your clothing gone, even if both are benefiting a stranger. Giving away your music and having it stolen from you is not the same thing, even if the same people are listening to it. You had a choice, and instead, someone made that choice for you.

And stealing music is one of the most forgivable types of stealing, in my eyes. There’s more than one way to make money in the music business—selling records, putting on concerts, selling merchandise. But what if you didn’t want to tour? People stealing your records are essentially forcing an artist to tour. They’re taking away the choice. With movies, they can make money based on box office revenues. Movies in theatres offer a different experience than movies played on a laptop or even on a home television.

Stealing books or video games is, in my eyes, just as bad as breaking into a home and stealing something while someone is away. In both these forms of media, the creators have few or no alternative ways of making money. This is hurting people’s livelihood. I don’t care how “bad the game is” and how you “would never pay money for this”. If that’s true, then don’t get it.

That’s one of the reasons why DLC and microtransactions and pre-order bonuses exist: developers are looking for ways to make money beyond making games. If the games they’re making can’t make enough money, or perhaps in order for people to get the legitimate copy of the game (which is often required to be able to download content), these things are coming out.

Oh, you’re stealing because it’s a big company? Because the company makes billions of dollars? Those same companies support hundreds of workers. Them making less money means people lose their jobs. Even McDonalds close down in neighborhoods if they’re robbed enough times. Sure, McDonalds is a huge company, but those thefts cost the jobs of those who worked in that neighborhood.

Stealing supports the culture of theft. If you were truly the only person to steal a song, then there would be no problem. But there are hundreds of millions of people who do it. And they’re encouraged to do it by the hundreds of millions of people around them that condone the practice.

If you want something, buy it. If it sucks, then at least you’re still paying the marketing team that worked their ass off to promote a product that sucks. That takes effort.

Sorry. I’m a little tired, I think. Too many enkais this week.

It’s probably good that I live in a safe part of a safe country. Japan is well known for its low crime, which is largely a product of culture. When people don’t steal from you, you don’t steal from people. When video games are really expensive, you either wait for them to go down in price, you don’t buy them, or you do buy them because you think they’re worth it. Or you buy them and beat them really quick so that you can sell them back for a decent amount of cash. A lot of people do that.

In my town, secluded in the mountains with less than two thousand people, theft is non-existent. My door is unlocked as we speak, in spite of having a PS3, Wii U, and a pretty nice TV ready for the taking. Sometimes a laptop is there too. A few weeks ago at a popular ski resort, I left my ski boots near similarly-looking other ski boots while I went to the bathroom. When I came back, they were gone. I was shocked. Was this the first instance of theft in Japan!? Nope. Turns out it was a misunderstanding. I got the boots back a week later.

But that’s all it would take to completely alter my view: coming back to a room with stuff missing.

Anywho, we’ve been off topic for too long. Let’s get back to something sensible.


It’s unfair to clump cheating in the same boat as stealing. For one, the person you cheat from isn’t losing anything in the process. Even if you cheat on a test and get a perfect score, somehow trivializing the cheatee’s score, the cheatee still has that knowledge and will still benefit from it in the long run.

If you copy information and pass it off as your own, you’re still not taking the original work away from the author. Indeed, if your work gets recognized while the original didn’t, it could be because you arranged your information in a better way or offered it in new channels.

Is cheating bad? It depends on how you use it. One of my high school teacher put it something like this:

Cheating is against the rules. If we find you doing it, you’re risking your academic future. Understand this. Plagiarism can result in expulsion.

But it’s better to be able to find and copy someone’s good idea than it is to come up with a half-assed idea. Expose yourself to good ideas. Copy answers until you can find your own. Always be looking for the right answer. Even better if you’re helping someone cheat: having confidence in your own skills and knowing how to deliver this information under the radar is an important skill in some fields.

Be smart. If you’re copying from someone and they’re not here, you fail. Working in groups is a good skill, but so is working solo.

Well, it was something like that anyways. It wasn’t even one big speech. More like a bunch of little ones.

When I see kids cheating, it’s pretty obvious. One kid clearly wrote something in Japanese and Google translated it. He was a smart kid and it read worse than things the weakest students wrote. But if he could have written something in Japanese, put it through a good translator, and then gave me something coherent in the end, I would have been fine with that. It’s more important that he gives me correct sentences than how he got those. Eventually, he’ll be able to produce those sentences by himself, I believe.

Another student who was generally poor copied a better student’s answers, word-for-word. I gave them full credit. They usually give me nothing. The fact that they personally hand-wrote correct answers took more effort than they usually give. I want to reward that.

Antimoon controversially talks about how mistakes are bad to make in the language learning process, saying that learners should instead only say things that they know are correct. That’s what language learning essentially is—copy and paste.

Fake it until you make it.

Cheat until you can correctly produce.


P.S. Just so we’re clear, cheating is bad. Don’t cheat. Not in school or on any post-school test. Work together with others, find what works, and learn to rephrase understood things. But things in school that were “cheating” like carrying a secret cheat sheet with you or writing things on your palm when you’re going to have a graded conversation are actually good things to do.

Who cares how much information you have in your head? What’s more important is how much you can create and understand on the spot, and if using techniques that were once considered “cheating” help you, use them!

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