robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
[personal profile] robinturner
We are told that prevention is better than cure, and in fact that an ounce of the former is worth a pound of the latter. It seems obvious, and almost impossible to argue against, which is one reason why I feel compelled to do so. The other reason came to me when I was helping administer an exam, but more of that later; first I want to take a more obvious example: burglary.

It is true that with crime in general, prevention is laudable. If you can prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place, then so much the better, but this logic does not apply all the way down the line. Let's assume we have failed in our noble goal of diverting young minds from the path of crime, and that we have the usual number of felons engaged in their employment. Is the best thing always to try to prevent them from pursuing their felonious little plans? It makes sense to lock your doors when you leave the house, cancel the papers when you go on holiday (do people still have papers delivered?) and all the small, unobtrusive crime prevention techniques. Is it, though, always a good idea to put a big burglar alarm on your house? Some say yes, it deters burglars; others say no, it advertises the fact that you have something worth stealing. Gated communities say it even more clearly; you might as well put up a sign saying "Lots of loot here!" Plus there's the fact that the more crime prevention measures you display (barbed wire, security cameras, Neighbourhood Watch signs) the more scared of crime you look, which all encourages the idea that there is a lot of crime about, and therefore crime pays, because criminals are not the kind of people to engage in tiring, unprofitable activity. Conspicuous prevention not only proclaims that there is something to prevent, but also implies that this something is worth doing.

Coming back to exams, it strikes me that conspicuous measures to prevent cheating often encourage it, whereas punishing the cheaters may well discourage their peers. What ID checks on the door, impounding of mobile devices and the like do is say loud and clear "You really should be trying to cheat here." This is particularly true in places where there is already a culture of cheating; every security measure is a move in a game where the students try to cheat and the school tries to prevent them. An honour system at least has the advantage that we can react with outrage if a student is caught cheating; elaborate security measure imply that we expect them to cheat. Better to expel a few cheaters and terrorise the others; cure is better than prevention here; in fact cure, forcibly executed, is prevention.
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Robin Turner

June 2014

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