It’s that time of year again. We’ve welcomed spring to campus and are looking toward summer. Faculty are thinking about research and preparing new courses. Students are tweaking summer plans and getting ready to pack up and vacate the dorms. It’s generally a happy and hopeful time on the academic calendar once we all get past exams. As a student, I always looked forward to putting down my pen after completing the last question or essay in the blue notebooks that were a staple of my student life and declaring it summer. It was liberating.
But final papers and exams bring with them anxiety about mastering material, being in the right frame of mind to take consequential tests and quieting the inner critic to cross the finish line. The tension can be overbearing because where anxiety lives, it’s very hard for learning to live. Research in neuroscience has helped us better understand what happens to the brain at these moments. The amygdala senses a threat and cortisol, a stress hormone, is released. Adrenaline floods us and makes the heart beat quickly. The reaction to stress is not only in the mind. It also resides in the body.
People respond or prepare for these possible reactions in a variety of ways. They may seek therapy for better cognitive behavioral techniques to manage the threat, real or imagined. They may talk back to the inner critic and lessen that inside voice of insecurity and negativity to a whisper to allow productive space for learning. They may calm the mind through meditation, music or silence. It’s not easy work.
For that reason, some people choose what they believe is the easy, expeditious route. They cheat their way through papers and exams. Technology often assists their cause. Despite the measures that professors and proctors put in place, no amount of guilt, reason or even religious shaming will change the person who sees education as merely instrumental, university relationships as merely transactional and their GPAs as inviolable. Maybe a student walks into a test with no intention to cheat, but the temptation becomes simply too strong. There are great risks involved, but even these cannot deter cheaters. The fact that there is data that cheating in school is correlated with cutting moral corners in other arenas such as relationships and workplace conduct is irrelevant to the cheater.
Whatever the excuses are — and there are many — cheaters can con others and themselves into believing that their actions are defensible because they’ve found a way to justify the outcomes. That students with rich and layered Torah backgrounds continue to cheat despite hearing their own rabbis and educators denounce it is sadly no surprise. Cheaters are going to cheat.
We can do our best as a faith-based institution to alert our students to these costs — often to others in the same class — but we cannot change someone whose goal is not moral or faithful, but utilitarian and self-serving. They may go on to build a life of big and little lies, but if these help them achieve their objectives, they will be unmoved by ethical or religious calls for academic integrity.
Cheaters may know the verse from Proverbs 3:4 — “Find favor and approval in the eyes of God and humans” — but tell themselves that God is not actually watching. They disregard the momentous words of Rabbi Yohanan, who on his deathbed, left his students with one piece of advice: that the fear of heaven be upon them in equal measure to their fear of other human beings (BT Brakhot 28b). The students were puzzled. Is that all? Rabbi Yohanan, perhaps with his very last breath, said, “Know that when one commits a transgression, he says to himself: ‘I hope that no one will see me.’” He forgets that God is the vigilant supervisor, the ultimate proctor.
What we can do is to move our focus away from cheaters who are unmoved by exhortations and put a moral spotlight, instead, on the enablers. You know who you are. Maybe you gave someone, who did not attend a lot of classes, all your notes to copy and regurgitate into their end-of-year paper. Or maybe you saw someone look at your test paper and did not shield it from view. You might even have hinted or assisted someone who guilted you into it before the test because he or she needed to pass to graduate. You may have seen someone cheat when you looked up from your work and decided not to mention it to the proctor for fear of being a snitch. Alternatively, you might have heard a bunch of people joking about how they cheated the system in the elevator on the way out of an exam and chose to say nothing. You’re not a bad person, you tell yourself. You studied. You’re not the one cheating.
Think again. Maimonides states unequivocally that, “Whoever has the possibility of rebuking wrongdoers and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin” (See Hilkhot De’ot 6:7 and BT Sanhedrin 93a). Why should that be? I believe it’s because Maimonides understood that morality is more than an individual predilection towards righteousness and goodness. It’s about seeing oneself as a stakeholder in and contributor to creating an ethical culture. He raises the bar on what every single person does to shape an environment. To say, “I’m not the one cheating” is not the same as saying, “I did all I could do to contribute to the kind of culture I want and am proud to belong to.” Cheaters need enablers, but I am not an enabler.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his book “The Great Partnership,” writes that, “We need religion to remind us … that success, fame, wealth, affluence, the siren songs of today’s culture, are trivial in comparison with character and integrity. And we need communities in which the virtues live, are rehearsed and are valued. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to sustain the moral life.” We are blessed to live in a university community that places character above all else, where the way we believe and behave today is a dress rehearsal for a sanctified future.
As we enter these last few weeks of classes, may the words of Rabbi Yohanan and Maimonides be upon us. I wish you the best on your papers and exams. And thank you for holding up the moral fiber of our community.