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Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

Most importantly, their happiness and success is influenced by what is now being called positive psychology. This refers to the ability to stay focused on the positive aspects of life and to feel that one has ways of making life better. This psychological trait, generally referred to as resilience, seems to be a mixture of genetic, family, and social factors. It’s not about where people went to school or what grades they achieved. Instead it is primarily about the lessons learned dealing with the inevitable challenges that life presents each of us.

This brings me back to the Hanover, N.H. story. There is so much to learn from what appears to be happening here. As best as I can tell from the comments of the parents of the nine accused students, these teens were achieving at a level that guaranteed at least being accepted into a very good college. So I would like you to close your eyes and try to imagine that you are a high school student who is academically smart and knows she is going to get into college.

What are you so afraid of that you would even consider the risk of a criminal act in order to try to get better grades on some of your final exams? This wasn’t an impulsive act; there is no sense that drugs or alcohol are involved. It was a complex plan that involved stealing keys from teachers and breaking into the school at night. It took place over a period of at least a couple of days — lots of time to reconsider the risks vs. the rewards. So, imaginary teenager, why are you doing this?

Clearly the fear of not getting the best possible grades was greater than the fear of getting caught. Equally clear is the lack of morality or, perhaps, better expressed as an unhealthy morality in which the rules are “anything is okay if the ends justify the means.” But, again I ask, why were the grades so important? I am assuming in each case it is some combination of the following factors: These students perceived themselves as potential failures if they didn’t get into one of the very best schools (growing up in the shadows of Dartmouth probably contributed to that); that they would be failures in the eyes of their peers in the intensely competitive group culture; that not getting the top grades in the class would disappoint their parents.

The latter is probably a particularly strong factor. Whether real or imagined, these students likely have believed for many years that they are valued by their parents for what they achieve as opposed to what kind of person they are. That is an enormous burden to carry and one that is expressed constantly in surveys, interviews, books, and movies.

Let’s keep in mind that the majority of the students were not involved in this criminal act even though the newspaper reports suggest as many as 50 students took advantage of seeing the stolen exams. However, I get very little relief from this because research has consistently indicated more than 50 percent of our students admit to cheating in school. It is, by any definition, an epidemic. Now, I would daresay that few of us could claim to have gone through school and never cheated on some test or project. But what might have been a few isolated incidents is apparently becoming much more the norm. It was not unusual for weaker students to pay a better student to write a paper for them in past generations. Now even the better students are going online and downloading finished reports.

Scary. But look at the world these young people are growing up in. Where are the heroes? Where are the role models? In every aspect of life, greed and dishonesty seem to dominate. America is a sports-obsessed culture and perhaps nowhere in our society is there more dishonesty. Well, I’ll take that back. Politics is way out in front. And the world of business is right behind. I mean you can’t even believe what you read in the New York Times anymore! Maybe we need to spend more time teaching ethics and philosophy and less time on science, math, and literature. Most young Americans who don’t grow up in poverty seem to be able to find a place for themselves in society. The crisis in our schools is more about leaving the poor further and further behind but also it is about the complete ignorance of important human values of social and personal responsibility.

Which brings me back to Hanover again. The parents, by insisting on a “slap on the wrist” response, are conveying a message that their children should not have to be responsible for committing a crime. I am sure that message of not being responsible for “bad behavior” is not a new one in those families and probably laid the groundwork for an increased lack of respect for what is right and honorable. Maybe you can’t change the world, but I urge all parents to take a very careful look at what kinds of moral and ethical messages you are giving to your children.

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To value caring acts, to value taking responsibility, to be an important part of the community and not continuously place self ahead of others… if you can convey this as more important than grades, the college you attend, and how much money you earn… then you will have truly carried out your responsibility as a parent and your children will be much better off because of it.

Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.