At 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, my office window was already darkened. The deserted building was quiet as I slowly made my way through a stack of term papers. “Two more, “I thought, “and I’m outta here.” I could picture my wife lighting the fire, and whipping up one of her delicious dinners.
As I reached for the next paper, a student suddenly appeared at my door. Sandy hair topped a floor length tweed coat. Clear blue eyes looked out of a sea of freckles. His face was alive.
“Hi, prof,” he said. “You busy?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Can I just have a few minutes?” he asked. “Something’s been going round and round in my head,and I need to talk.”
“OK,” I sighed, thinking of a fire burned to ashes, and dinner cooling on the table. I nodded to a chair. “Have a seat.”
“My Name’s Matt,”he said, settling into the chair.
“Hi Matt,” I said. “What’s up?”
“It’s like this,” he said. “It’s getting toward the end of the semester, ya know? And a lot of teachers are beginning to fulminate…”
“Fulminate?” I asked.
“Yah,”he said. “Look it up. Anyway, lots of teachers are taking class time to come down hard against cheating and plagiarism. They get like all bent our of shape and get all heavy about how kids who cheat are bad.”
“So what did you expect?” I asked. “Encouragement?”
“Naw,” he said. “But I really think that cheating is damned understandable, what with the pressure and all. And frankly, prof, I don’t think the reasons I’ve heard for not cheating are worth a crock.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“Not funny, prof,” he said.
“OK,” I said. “Tell me what you mean.”
“Well,” he said, “I remember the grade school teachers telling me that if I cheated on a test, I was only cheating myself.”
“And…?” I asked.
“C’mon,” he said, a pained look on his face. “I may be stupid but I’m not dumb. I’m going to learn what I need to know, or care to know, and the rest is just games. I want to be an accountant, for God’s sakes, and make a lot of money doing other people’s income taxes. So why study Wordsworth? So I can recite poetry to my clients? I’m sorry. I’ll gladly learn what I need to learn in life, but if I can cheat my way around some stupid hoops, why not?”
“But don’t you think,” I asked, “that a human life is richer if it has some poetry or mythology in it?”
“Sure,” he said. “But I got a lifetime to fool with that stuff. Talk real. Right now, my priorities don’t lie with the Romantic poets. It’s marks, deadlines, and hormones. Not necessarily in that order.”
“I see your point,” I said.
“Besides,” he went on. “Wasn’t Plato against compulsory education? Him being the father of the whole thing and all? Didn’t he say “for the free spirit, there should be no element of slavery in learning?'”
I shifted uncomfortably. “You do seem to remember some things quite well,” I said. “But being here in college is your choice.”
“Smell the coffee,” he said. “You can’t deny that a lot of us students are in school because of pressure from our parents and because of economic pressure from the society. Some choice: college on the one hand, poverty and PO’d parents on the other.”
“Honest, prof,” he continued, “this whole school business has been thirteen years of sheer torture. Over half the teachers I’ve had seemed to hate what they were doing, and they didn’t like kids very much either. My history teacher made history boring and my poetry teacher was the soccer coach. On and on. If their subjects didn’t mean much to them, didn’t inspire them, why should they count a tinker’s damn with me?”
“Well…” I said.
“School has been one long painful game,” he continued. “Nothing but memorizing the answers to other people’s questions. Any honest question I had was on the floor just long enough for the teacher to stomp it, like a roach. I learned real fast what was important, and it wasn’t me learning the wisdom of the ages. No–the only thing I’ve really learned is how to play the game called ‘student.’ And the point of that game is to get the highest mark for the least amount of work. And one of the basic rules is: when you don’t need the knowledge, and its a lousy course anyway, and you can get away with it, Cheat!’
He sat back, finally played out. I looked at him across the silence in my office. This was a good kid, with good, sincere ideas. He was clearly confused by the contradictory values that seemed embedded in the institutions of education. I wondered if I could return the honesty he had given me.
“Matt,” I said, “I’m not going to argue with a word you said. When I was a Freshman, I felt trapped in an uncaring and impersonal system just like you do.”
“But here you are,” he said, “part of the system. What gives?”
“That’s one of my perennial questions,” I said. “And maybe in the next few minutes we’ll confront it together. But for now, I’d like to follow a line of thought about a problem with cheating, even in an imperfect system.”
“Good luck,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “My idea’s got something to do with how I feel when there is discontinuity between what’s going on inside of me and the face I show to the world. There’s a thinker I like named Martin Buber. He talks about how some people in the world are ‘essence people’ and others are ‘image people.’ Now it seems to me that when there is a serious break between who I am and the image I fabricate to show the world, the real me is painfully isolated, unknown and unacknowledged by others and even by myself. I find myself pouring my energy into maintaining that phony exterior, all the while trying to fool myself and other people into believing that the image is real. Moreover, that leaves a terrible emptiness inside. I become what T.S. Eliot called a Hollow Man.
He was listening intently, so I pressed on.
“You know,” I said, “sometime I think our only real possession is our word. It is one of the most important ways that we tell people who we are. You know as well as I do how shabby we feel when we use our word to deceive other people. It’s a betrayal of their trust. It’s a betrayal of our own authentic reality. I think of this sometimes when I sit at a graduation ceremony and watch student after student receive their diplomas. As they walk across the stage, faces flushed with champagne and triumph, mothers and fathers crying with pride, I wonder how terrible some of them must feel, knowing it is all a lie and that they themselves are walking frauds.”
“I see what you’re saying,” He said. “But the pressure…”
“I know,” I said. “But where do we draw the line? Where is the point at which we cave in to fear or greed? It reminds me of the student who asked a teacher if he could have an “A” for a million dollars. After reflection the teacher said sure. The next day, the student asked the teacher for an “A” for ten bucks. ‘What kind of a man do you think I am?’ asked the teacher indignantly. ‘We’ve already established that,’ said the student. ‘Now we are just haggling price.'”
“There is something to this story,” I went on. “Aren’t people who choose to cheat simply prostituting themselves? Selling themselves out because the price it right?”
“That’s nasty, prof,”he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “That usually happens to me when I begin to confront myself.”
“Now don’t you get phony on me,” he said. “You’re not telling me that you have trouble with cheating, are you?”
“You bet I do,” I said. “Not on tests, because that is not an issue for me. But I’m constantly tempted to cheat other people by not giving them my truest thoughts, my honest feelings, and my most generous actions. Maintaining your integrity is one of the toughest things in life. Some people do it by becoming hard, cold, and self-rightous. Others just give up. Still others are looking for a different way, a way fraught with difficulty and risk. There is a saying that we should always be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. One of the hardest is the struggle to be true to yourself. Nobody likes a phony, Matt, especially when it’s yourself. As Pogo said “We have met the enemy, and he is us.'”
“Jeez…” he said.
“You did a good job justifying the act of cheating within an imperfect system, Matt,” I said. “But it’s a lot harder to come up with reasons that justify, or even recommend, being the kind of person who could do it.”
“I never thought of it that way,” he said.
“Actually,” I replied, “this kind of moral thinking is called ‘aretaic’ or the ethics of character, and it goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.” I grinned at him. “Look it up,” I said.
“Still not funny, prof,” he said.
“Now about my being a part of this ‘corrupt’ system,” I said.
“This is really the point,” he said. “How can a guy buy into those grand ideals of yours when his spirit is being ground down day after day?”
“This is true,” I said. “I’ve already told you that I was as brain dead as anyone when I got out of high school.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Well, it didn’t happen all at once,” I said. “I just remember that during my Sophomore and Junior years in college, I began to hear refreshing notes in some of my classes. Where was the customary BS? I starting looking at my teachers, perhaps really seeing them for the first time. And I saw, in some of them at least, an honesty and sincerity I never knew existed. What’s more, the process in which they were engaged looked exciting. Fun, even. Finally, I decided to join them.”
“Are you telling me that’s here at this school?” he asked.
“It sure is,” I said. “Right down the hall there is a Religious Studies teacher who is honestly engaging with the problem of evil in the world. When he was in grad school, he worked part-time in a hospital. One of his jobs was delivering dead babies to the morgue. You can join with him, if you want, in his struggle to understand. A few doors farther down is a woman who teaches college writing and who lives as a writer of relentless sincerity. Across the hall from her is a man who loves Shakespeare with passionate intensity.
“I could go on and on, ” I continued. “Schools across the world are filled with teachers who delight in sharing the joys and the skills of learning. Their classrooms are vibrant and energized with caring. But if you want to see them, you have to decide to look. Once you do, once you allow yourself to get a taste of a few of these people, school becomes one of the most alive and exciting places in the world. It also reveals itself as a place where cheating is an obscene and callous affirmation of all the ugly values you deplored when you first came in.”
It was my turn to be played out. Silence settled between us.
“I don’t know what I think about all this,” he said at last, “But there sure is a lot here for me to chew on.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Well, I got to go, prof,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”
“See you, Matt,” I said. “I hope we can do it again.”
I sat in my office alone after he had gone, staring at the darkened window. Finally I turned out the light and went home.