The Jewish Ethicist - Homework Help


The delicate line between helping a child with assignments and actually doing them.

Q. I discovered I have a gift for helping others with math problems. Can I offer my service to online help sites?

A. Nobody knows exactly when the first homework was assigned, but it's a fair bet that whenever it was, the first attempt to get help was only a few hours later. Classmates, parents and siblings have always been considered fair game for help with perplexing assignments.

The newest horizon in this millennia-old struggle is homework help websites. Usually the sites don't directly offer help to students but rather serve as a clearinghouse to match students up with tutors who work independently. Tutors generally contact with students through a combination of email, instant messaging, and special white-board software. Different sites have varying degrees of supervision over the qualifications and ethics of their proffered tutors.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a homework help site. In some ways this is a welcome and democratizing development. In the past, students with educated parents have had a significant head start in school, since their parents could help them with their homework. Equally-qualified students from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods had difficulty keeping up.

Equal educational opportunity is in fact a principle value in Jewish tradition. Judaism frowns on elitism in education. The Talmud recounts the praise of Yehoshua ben Gamla, who over a thousand years ago instituted universal primary education among Jewish boys:

"At first, someone who had a father, he would teach him Torah; one without a father could not learn Torah... Until Yehoshua ben Gamla came and instituted that there should be teachers in every province and in every town." (1)

Likewise, internet resources like such help sites create a situation where there are tutors in every neighborhood and virtually every home.

However, we cannot ignore the dangers of this phenomenon either. As any parent of schoolchildren knows, there is a delicate line between helping a child with assignments and actually doing them. Since the long-term interest of the child is more closely aligned with developing knowledge and study habits, most (but not all) parents are careful to avoid crossing the line. But it is understandable that a tutor being paid by the student might be more interested in customer satisfaction then with long-term educational performance.

It is up to the instructor to provide an explicit policy regarding exactly how much homework help is permitted, and responsibility for adhering to the policy resides primarily with the student. But the tutor cannot evade responsibility entirely. To the extent that a tutor aids a student in violating the educational policy of the school, he is a confederate in wrongdoing and transgresses the Biblical commandment, "Don't place an obstacle before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14). Our tradition interprets this as an obstacle to righteousness, that is, enabling a transgression by someone else.

On the other hand, it is clear that tutors cannot be expected to monitor every customer to make sure that no school regulations are violated. A tutor would be considered abetting cheaters in one of two cases:

1. If a significant fraction of customers are cheaters. If I am a merchant and once in a while my product is misused, I don't have to close my business. But if a main use of my product is for wrongdoing (example: selling narcotics paraphernalia or lock picks) then I bear responsibility. The Talmud forbids selling diluted wine to a store since the chances were very high that the store would use such wine to deceive its own customers. (2)

2. If the business actively solicits or encourages such business. For example, some term paper sites advertise that they can customize the paper to conform to special assignments of the teacher, or promise that their papers will earn a certain grade. In this case they are clearly soliciting customers who are trying to hoodwink the school and get unfair credit for work they did not do.

If you personally are always careful when tutoring to teach and enable, and never actually give out answers, then there is no reason you can't make your talent into a livelihood and use it to help others learn.

Just as tutors cannot evade their responsibility for unscrupulous customers, so site managers cannot evade responsibility for unscrupulous tutors. If a significant fraction of tutors are out of line, or if the site encourages such tutors (even if they are few), then the site management shares responsibility. Anyone operating a homework help site should make sure that tutors are qualified; should institute clear guidelines for permissible conduct which forbids simply doing homework assignments for students; and should introduce a monitoring system which will enable them to root out any tutors who help customers cheat in school.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Batra 21a. See also tractate Nedarim 81a. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 60a.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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