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Cheating and Congress. A match made in a smokey back room

Before we get to the story we should have all seen coming, I hope everyone had a lovely Labor Day Weekend.   Thanks go the Unions of this country for making that happen!  And, of course, for weekends in general!

Last Spring 279 students took a final exam in one particular course at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.   Nearly half are now under investigation for collaborating with their classmates, plagiarizing answers and other forms of academic dishonesty.   Some of the accused students have already graduated, while others remain enrolled at the University.   The investigation is expected to be a challenging one, given that students claim their behavior was allowed throughout the whole semester and was not explicitly prohibited on the final exam.  The Boston Globe quoted an unnamed student who said ““I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this…Everyone in this class had shared notes. You’d expect similar answers.”  Clearly, from everything currently being reported, there was a pretty significant gray area and the students in the class used that to their advantage.   Cheating or not, the actions of these students should not surprise us and, in fact, should be a lesson for us all.

In responding to the cheating allegations, Harvard education professor Howard Gardner commented that he sees this as evidence of “the regular thinning of ethical muscles in our country.”  Agreed.  However, he goes on to say that “If for 20 years you’ve been studying young people, this isn’t surprising…In many ways they’re lovable and inspiring, but they cut corners the way you would jaywalk. . . . This is a textbook example of people doing what they think they can get away with rather than what they should be doing.”  I don’t disagree with Gardner on that larger point, but I think he is missing the forest through the trees.  I’m in no way excusing what the students did (if in fact it was against the rules), but I am saying that these students were simply following the example of our leaders and “role models” – most of whom happily reside in Gardner’s generation.  Beyond the belittling of Generation Y (lovable?), Gardner is falling to the same trap that we’ve seen far too many times and, in fact, mimics the response of these students.  When in doubt, blame someone else.

There is a personality theory (don’t click away!) called Locus of Control.  Briefly, it was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954 and, essentially, explores how much people believe they can control events that impact them.  Got it?  So, individuals with a high locus of control believe that things happen (or didn’t happen) because of what they did or what they contributed.  Individuals with a low locus of control believe that external factors have a greater impact on their success or failure.  I believe that Gardner, and many of our leaders today, have an extremely low locus of control and that is perpetuating the erosion of morality and personal ethical responsibility.

But that’s only part of the problem.  Over the past 4 years (and really beyond), these students have seen that gray area exploitation is rarely punished and often celebrated.  Doping in sports, playing fast and loose with facts in politics, fake reality TV on the networks – deception is the name of the game.   The lesson these students could have learned while watching CNN is that, if you can find a way to cheat, go ahead and do it.  Just don’t get caught.  And, if you do, blame whomever caught you or make up a story rather than taking responsibility.   Is it any wonder that these students would just follow the lead of the people they see every night on the evening news?

If these students did cheat and are now lying about it, they should be punished.  But I hope, in the final analysis, we hold our leaders and famous people to the same standards of honesty and integrity.   I hope that we don’t stand for a candidate blatantly lying in a speech or advertisement.  I hope we don’t make excuses for a previously beloved athlete who has betrayed our admiration.  I hope we don’t let party, team or geographic loyalty get in the way of demanding honesty.  It’s going to take all of us to reverse “the regular thinning of ethical muscles in our country” that Gardner bemoans because, you see, it’s not just one generation at fault.  The responsibility lies with all of us and that, to me, is the most important takeaway from the Harvard cheating scandal of 2012.

Oh yeah, the class in question.  Introduction to Congress.  How depressingly appropriate!