In the eighth grade, everyone at my middle school took a vocational test that purported to determine what sort of non-professional job you’d be best at, a pro at, so to speak. This test, even more so than others, was pure hell. It essentially comprised two hours of quality control factory work via Scantron technology.
One “exercise” involved connecting what were essentially sets of arrow heads (think opposing carets) by drawing the straightest straight line your cramped hand could manage from one to the other. One girl, who was a solid B-plus/A-minus student and later ended up going to an elite private school, decided to cheat. This was where she would triumph. She was determined to be the best at straight-arrow-drawing, which I guess would by extension make you a good draftsperson in a tiny blueprint sweatshop.
How do you cheat at drawing straight lines? You start before the time allotted. I quit shortly after time began (but only after squiggly and wavy lines lost their luster). She gave herself an illegal 7 to 10 second head start. I assume she “won.”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the nature of cheating. It is the nature of human nature. Contrary to popular belief, cheating was not recently invented by rich kids on Long Island. Indeed it predates those who pursue an unfair advantage in seeking admission to Harvard instead of Yale, Amherst instead of Wesleyan, Duke instead of, gasp, Emory.
Cheating, it seems, is as old as paper. It began over a thousand years ago when one guy decided to pull some trickery to get ahead. Ever since then, people have been copying him (or so goes the just-now-invented old joke). Academics trace the origins of academic cheating to the origin of the standardized test. The standardized test, along with paper, was invented by the Chinese.
For over a millenium, the civil service examination system of China represented a path to the Chinese dream. With little more than knowledge, intellect and a lot of hard work and hand cramping, anyone had a shot at climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Well, anyone provided you weren’t Buddhist, Taoist, a woman or of such low class so as to be labeled one of the “Mean People” (self-fulfilling prophecy much?).
In actuality though, most of the the people who did take the test were already what we’d today call lower-middle class or higher. After all, one had to have access to books and crucial time away from the fields to study. More important still was that the rural student had to master the Mandarin nonvernacular before he could even begin to tackle the Chinese classics. It would be like studying to take the LSAT and learning English at the same time.
Nevertheless, it did provide a path to prosperity for some Chinese. On the surface, it served a two-fold purpose: it recruited people willing to run the vast bureaucracy that kept Imperial china afloat, and, by fostering a sense of loyalty in the civil servants, it helped maintain Imperial power. Everybody wins. Even the failures turned into successes. With the education they had accumulated, those who narrowly missed the cutoff went on to compose music, produce art or invent the precursor to the Hemingway beard.
Those who succeeded were rewarded handsomely with entree to the Imperial elite. Every other year 2 to 3 million attempted the biennial test. Boys who showed promise were drilled for the test beginning at age five. Children in rural areas attended the local school, if it existed. Wealthier families sent their children into cities to attend academies. And the bona fide rich paid for private tutors. By the time they were fully prepared, test takers memorized upwards of 600,000 characters from classic Chinese texts in sequential order.
The exam lasted between 24 and 72 hours. It was held in what were essentially prison cells outfitted with three flat boards. One was a “shelf,” one a “desk” and the other a “seat.” Each student was sealed into his room until the test was over. There was one way to get out though. If you died during the test, they would cut you out.
Students were tested on the Six Arts — music, archery, horsemanship, arithmetic, writing, knowledge of rituals and ceremonies — as well as the Five Studies — military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography and Confucian classics.
Additionally, they were required to compose an Eight-legged Essay, a style of writing that makes five-paragraphs look like a haiku. There was, of course, the opening, the amplification, preliminary exposition, initial argument, central argument, latter argument, final argument and conclusion. In the essay, by the way, the student was expected to quote the Four Books and Five Classics, hallmarks of Confucianism, verbatim and with ease. One incorrectly drawn character in the handwritten essay was grounds for failure. Heaven help you if you decided, in Western terms, to “circle” your “i’s” instead of “dotting” them.
Let it more than suffice to say that this test was really freakin’ hard, damn near impossible. Cheating was severely punished. A light sentence was being banished from the capital. A heavy one was punishment of death. Yet, people still cheated. Lots of them.
The methods of cheating were quite diverse. They included bribery (a rich kid’s favorite), slipping papers to a friend and palm-sized cheat sheets. Cheating became institutionalized with enablers making a living by providing cheating resources. If you knew whom to ask and had the coin, you just might have been able to score my personal favorite, the cheating shirt.
Over time, the already secure test was made even more secure. The more that the administrators did to prevent cheating, the more creative the cheaters got. It’s a perfect example of Campbell’s Law. When the stakes are high, people are likely to cheat. And the stakes are always high, even when you’re drawing straight lines.