Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Cheaters written and directed by John Stockwell is a quiet genius of a movie. Maybe that's because the story is about the 1995 Steinmetz High Academic Decathalon Cheating Scandal in which the lower class students obtained the tests before competing with the upper class schools going onto win the Illinois Championship only to be exposed for 'cheating'. The movie depicts the 'fixed' unfair nature of these 'competitions' and exposes the 'cheating' that pervades modern American society. Highest paid lawyers admit to cheating as Presidential lying is exposed verbatim. The question asked, is do the public schools prepare people for "real" 'corporate America' or perpetuate the class rule by promoting one Biblical interpretation for the lower classes and a different for the upper classes. Written in 2000 it's more true today in light of the epidemic of 'cheating' by the leaders of American society and the lies of 9-11 and the Iraq invasion. For America to maintain it's reign begun in moral and spiritual high ground will it need to persist in it's barbaric devolution or will it maintain it's place by ascending out of it's recent pitiful mire. Jeff Daniels portrayal of Dr. Gerard Plecki is sensitive, powerful and believable. Jena Malone playing a brilliant student ring leader Jolie Fitch is sensational, sexy in that special smart girl way while oozing innoscence and impish rebellion. All the actors and actresses are amazing in this moving film intimately bringing home the terrible angst of adolescence without camp and truthfully portraying teachers and students in these most difficult years. John Stockwell has captured so much in this film.

The United States Academic Decathalon is itself a remarkable achievement. Developed by Robert Peterson of Orange County in 1968 it became nationwide in 1981. It's original plan was not only to provide an academic competition for high achievers but also encourage participation from the C level students. The ten events are art, economics. language and literature, math, music, science and social sciences. In addition to multiple choice tests the judges grade essay, interview and speech.

In many ways the movie reminded me of my undergraduate and medical school study and exam experience. I didn't cheat but had class mates who did. One particular student was infamous for roaming the city and literally stealing all the library books that were necessary for any given assignment. Where does one draw the line at 'unfair advantage'.
Forming study groups I had the advantage of benefitting from the collective wisdom of our group. Were it not for this I'd not have learned of the national "exam" reservoir or even contributed to it. Old exams existed and we prepared by these but accross the country students like myself wrote down what questions we remembered after our exam and sent them off to the be re distributed to the next year's students. The idea was that there was a fairly standard bank of questions and by preparing using these questions we stood a good chance of covering material that was likely to be examined. Commercial booklets were sold that did the same but the banks of questions which students distributed were the best.
At the time I thought "we all know of this" and were clever but in fact the isolated students would most likely not have. I only learned of the 'study guides' that were commercially available when I was overwhelmed by trying to study the text that the professors gave us, the collected reading "required' being inconsiderately more than an individual life time. When the class divided and we had lecturers I had a major dimwit one semester while I lucked out on a good one next. Insider trading of information about the quality of staff was just one of many things that could impact profoundly on one's success.
My ex wife had the benefit of my having done all the exams before her and naturally sharing as much information as I could. Half the students had family who were doctors so had a differential advantage, many being raised in medical terminology which was another language to the minority of us who didn't have family or work experience in medical fields before entry.
I did knew of one person who attempted to use 'social position' to sway a medical judge in an oral exam only to be failed by the woman doctor who having worked hard to achieve her own place wasn't about to share it based on supposed "blue blood " line. Her position in medicine was more important to her than her position at the country club.
Meanwhile in retrospect most of the examinations and studies were sound and when I went out into country and general practice I was deeply thankful to my teachers for their thorough preparation of me for real medicine where I was alone facing gunshot wounds, myocardial infarctions, kidney failures, massive auto accident and industrial trauma , breech deliveries and all the horrors and surprises that medicine is. Four years before I would have been a danger to self and others in 99% of these situations and thanks to my medical school and the faculty and examinations I was prepared for the daily life and death encounters and we survived.

I can only think that the students who participate in the Academic Decathalons would be even better prepared.

Today I heard a professor tell me he'd told his students that they experienced a rush for mid terms and then could look forward to a break and then another rush for finals which he hoped would prepare them for the daily mid term and final exam experience of the real world professional life.

Aint that the truth! I thought, remembering how 'unfair' it was that I was up all night delivering babies sick with the flu myself and doing a final exam with no sleep in 36 hours. Not a year later I was thankful for that experience as I spent days and nights without sleep with nurses working beside me during a meningitis epidemic on an Indian reserve.

As to cheating, I always remember this other kid in elementary school trying to trip me when I was passing him in a race. I saw the terror and shame and failure in his eyes. I passed him but I knew that in trying to trip me he'd forfeited the race to me. He knew I was a better runner. It didn't matter what the outcome was after that. On the other hand if you believe that the guy with the most toys and the stupidest plastic surgery barbie is the winner, maybe cheaters do win. There are however some toys I would certainly appreciate and could use a nip and tuck myself.

In the movie Grand Canyon, 1991 Mack is played by Kevin Kline while Danny Glover plays Simon the tow truck driver being held up Rockstar played by Shaun Baker. They shares these immortal lines:
Grand Canyon (1991)
Simon: This neighborhood is gone to shit.
Mack: This country is gone to shit.

Simon: I've gotta ask you for a favor. Let me go my way here. This truck's my responsibility, and now that the car's hooked up to it, it's my responsibility too.
Rocstar: Do you think I'm stupid? Just answer that question first.
Simon: Look, I don't know nothing about you; you don't know nothing about me. I don't know if you're stupid, or some kind of genius. All I know is that I need to get out of here, and you got the gun. So I'm asking you, for the second time, let me go my way here.
Rocstar: I'm gonna grant you that favor, and I'm gonna expect you to remember it if we ever meet again. But tell me this, are you asking me as a sign of respect, or are you asking because I've got the gun?
Simon: Man, the world ain't supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don't know that yet. I'm supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.
Rocstar: So what's your answer?
Simon: You ain't got the gun, we ain't having this conversation.
Rocstar: That's what I thought: no gun, no respect. That's why I always got the gun.

When I was young and omnipotential with straight A's in arts and science, as likely to be a succes in banking, law, medicine as any one of the professions I chose medicine. I was gymnast,martial artist and street fighter, well trained in wilderness survival, weapons and hunting. I could have as easily excelled in the military, become a mercenary or a terrorist but I chose academia. I even specialized. But for a society to have specialization and academics and doctors they have to be willing to protect them. I don't feel safe today. Fewer do in this society. The cheaters and liars never did feel safe or know peace so they're doing even more cheating and lying. Just as the bullies are doing more bullying.

As Simon says. "Everything is supposed to be different."

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