2001 Convocation Address - Painted Bicycles

Convocation Address
September 3, 2001
Tom Gerety

When I was in my last semester at law school I went to the registrar for a transcript of my grades and credits. The room had a counter where I waited for help. It was late Friday afternoon and the woman on duty was all by herself. When I first came in she was busy with a phone call. When she got off she asked for my name and some identification; she told me I needed to pay a few dollars for each of the several copies I wanted sent out. I wrote out the names and addresses of those to whom the transcripts were to go, and I wrote out a check as she had told me. But by this time she had picked up the phone again. She shrugged at me as if to say "What can I do?" I waited for her to finish the conversation. While she talked she pulled out a file drawer and found my transcript, a surprisingly simple printed card. She waved this in the air as she gestured to the person on the other end of the line. The conversation went on, punctuated by an occasional shrug for my sake. I realized this was going to take a while. Then, still talking busily on the phone, she came to the counter and handed me the card, for inspection I assumed. I looked it over and nodded: the grades were familiar, though I was struck by the various pens that had been used and one splotch of whiteout where one of my law teachers must have changed his mind about my paper or exam. I wondered about that but just looked up at her with a nod that was meant to suggest that "Yeah, this is the right one all right. . ." Instead of taking it back, though, she mouthed the word "copy," pointed to the door and the corridor, and held up five fingers for the number of copies I wanted sent out. I knew there was a copy machine outside because I had used it once before and because someone was often there in the corridor copying one thing or another. I was dumbfounded as I realized that she wanted me to copy my own transcript while she went on talking on the phone. I turned, went out to the machine in the corridor, pushed the number 5, brought back the copies and waited for her once again. With the phone at her ear, she gave me a little wave of thank you. Now, I had good grades but, I will admit here, not perfect grades. As I left the building to go home I remember a wave of relief and astonishment that I had just escaped the temptation to make my law school record absolutely perfect. What astonished me at the time was how trusting she was of my honesty—or was it only that she was so involved in her phone conversation that she never even thought I might change a grade or two out in the corridor?

Life is full of dishonesty. Most of us realize this fleetingly, as we evade a request for a meeting or tell someone that we liked a poem that we found silly or not as funny or clever as they hoped. In schools, as in love, we call the chief form of dishonesty cheating. It is one of those things in the background of our lives as students and teachers, whether as a temptation or a fact. Occasionally a cheater is caught out in a painful incident.

Over this spring and summer many of us watched in grim fascination as one of the Valley's best scholars was shown to have lied to his students repeatedly about his experience of combat during the Vietnam War. Some people tried to defend these classroom lies by saying, glibly, that we all lie at times—which is certainly true: Huck Finn had it that "I never seen anybody but lied one time or another. . . ." But the point is that students trust their teachers to tell them what they know—or think they know—to be true. And, conversely, we teachers trust you students to tell us truthfully what you know, what you have learned. But if lying is as old as talking and writing, then cheating may well be as old as tests and courses.

In cheating, we not only take ideas from someone else—which almost all intellectuals do and have to do—but we then pass them off as our own, as our own discoveries or insights, as the product of our own work, unaided by others. The "taking" of ideas, the exchanging of ideas, is innocent—innocent, that is, unless we conceal their origins and our debt to others.

In Amsterdam back in the '70s free bicycles were distributed around the town for all to use: They were painted a bright white so that you couldn't miss them. Taking them was perfectly all right so long as you left them again for the next person to come along. But the system broke down when people took them and either wrecked them or repainted them in various colors so as to steal them. In effect, intellectual life requires that we use the common bicycles—the insights and ideas put there by others. But we do this on the understanding that we owe each other an honest acknowledgment of where the ideas came from. The system of free bicycles broke down quickly once a few thieves went to work. The system of free ideas is much tougher. Cheaters have not done nearly so much harm. But they do betray the understanding under which we all work: that we will own up to the sources of our ideas and account for them by saying "I found this idea here and I owe this other idea to so-and-so. . ."

When any of us cheats in school—in research, in tests, in discussions—we paint ideas a new color, as if to say "These are mine. . . I did the work that you see or hear: I get the credit for it." We lie about the work in order to steal the credit. And often we can get away with this lie for the simple reason that we trust each other. Academic life, like friendship, requires this trust, which is what frees us up to argue hard and with conviction.

Plagiarism is a kind of intellectual theft, like making off with a Dutch bicycle. But the analogy is imperfect, or at least vulnerable to a sharp critique for its suggestion that knowledge is somehow like money or a possession. Knowledge is not like money. If I earn $100 and you take it from me, I will have lost it. But if I learn an operation in calculus and you take that from me, I still have it—and you never really got it; you never learned it. What you did get was a counterfeit of knowledge that worked for this one purpose, for getting through a course with a passing grade on the exam.

Cheating is sometimes defended in more or less this way: No one loses anything. I take the grade and the credit without doing the work, it is true, but I don't take it from anyone. The person whose answer or paper I copy loses nothing. He or she got—or will get—full credit for their work. If it's plagiarism from published work, the author will know nothing about my use of it—and the author's reputation and royalties will hardly be affected by an undergraduate's illicit use of the material. Thus more than one undergraduate plagiarist has responded indignantly when caught by a professor, "What difference do little quotation marks make?"

In its own way this is a profoundly important question for a college like ours, for those of us who teach here, and above all for you who will study here. What difference does cheating make to us all?

There is always an element of shock in the discovery of a cheating episode, particularly one that involves several students. But the shock is never evenly distributed: the faculty and its deans are almost always caught by surprise by these incidents. They had thought them rare and improbable among the bright and motivated students we enroll. The alumni and the Board of Trustees are usually dismayed. "It makes no sense at all for our students," they say. I'm not sure what parents think of such incidents. I mostly hear from the outraged parents—and lawyers—of those who are accused. But the students are almost never so shocked as the rest of us. "I see a fair amount of cheating," one of the editors of the student paper told me. "It's just rare that anyone gets caught."

Last year and the year before we saw a spike in the number of cases brought before our disciplinary committee. The College Council—which includes students, faculty members and deans—reviewed our policies and practices in depth.

There have been many surveys of cheating and academic dishonesty on this and other campuses. None that I have seen can pretend to much certainty. In the early 1970s an anonymous survey of undergraduates here at Amherst yielded admissions from more than a third of those who responded that they themselves had cheated at least once. There were some curiosities in the survey questions—and in its results. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, those who felt the most pressure, those with a set of definite prerequisites for graduate school, cheated at a higher rate than others. This suggests that the leading condition in cheating of all kinds is pressure, competition. But the survey didn't define cheating with any precision. Presumably someone who will cheat on an exam will also lie about it. So it is possible that more students cheat than say they do, even anonymously.

Research elsewhere suggests a range of frequency of cheating on roughly this order: from 30 to 60 percent of students will acknowledge anonymously that they have cheated at least once in an undergraduate career. Male students seem to cheat more than female students; students sworn to uphold an honor code—with an obligation to report one another—seem to cheat less than others.
The question is, will you be among them? If not, why not? Why does it matter?

You came here as someone who studied well and studied hard. It is an odd place to come in order to slack off and cheat, even occasionally. But still it's worth asking why anyone would cheat here. Certainly there will be moments of temptation; most students that I talk to about it say that cheating is most common among two kinds of students, the disaffected and the insecure.

If you are frightened of Amherst, frightened that you will fail here, then panic may push you to do all sorts of things that will seem stupid in hindsight. The College Council report of 1974 gave many instances of students saying that they feared they would not live up to expectations–their own, their families, "their friends." This fear, combined with piled-up homework and an especially tough course, may throw a student into a frenzied search for a way to come up with an assured grade.

There is a thick streak of irrationality in this panic: The Admission Office spent a lot of time selecting each of you in preference to others; their chief criterion—always—is the student's ability to thrive intellectually. A student in the '70s said that the fearful cheater was like the nation's then fearful president, Richard Nixon, who used illegal methods in his campaign for re-election despite overwhelming odds of victory. Like Nixon, the fearful cheater is likely to destroy precisely what he or she wanted to secure by panicky acts of dishonesty.

Conditions for which we bear some responsibility might contribute to the temptation to cheat in a panic: first, we as teachers need to make sure that our students know the boundaries between legitimate cooperation, legitimate citation and plagiarizing from others, whether scholars or peers. Our advice has to be plain: always make clear to us where ideas have come from. The second condition in which we as an institution have a part, is that we owe it to our students and to ourselves to acknowledge the dangers and temptations of cheating and to guard against them as best we can. For many years, we at Amherst have had a tradition of no proctors in exams. The professor has every right to come and go, should she or he choose to do so, but typically no one will be there watching while you take an exam. This is an aspect of our understanding that you are adults on your honor, to be respected as such. It is a notable feature of Amherst College and extends to both the curriculum and residential life. You are on your own here; we trust you to make sound choices. But we can sometimes trust too much, and thus tempt students into mistakes that all of us will regret.

The third condition is that we stand ready to help. You should know that we do, that that is among our purposes. In addition we have created a Writing Center and a Quantitative Skills Center, a tutoring program and a Dean's Office–all of which derive real satisfaction from helping students succeed here.

Finally, though, I should mention one condition of our institutional life over which we have less control than we might imagine. All of us, in all our roles on this campus, derive some advantage from the place of the College in the hierarchy not just of American colleges and universities but also in the larger world of American political, economic and cultural life. We can hold out loud and long for the intrinsic worth of our studies together, but they are assigned an extrinsic worth as well.

Amherst is a credential, as we say: a curious word meaning a mark of faith or belief, of credit—something in which others can put their faith, their credence. Credentials were originally diplomatic letters telling one court to accept—and trust—ambassadors from another. Similarly our credits in courses are marks of a level of achievement. None of us should be so naive as to ignore the dual nature of an Amherst education—something we hold dear for its own qualities of study and insight but something the world values as a multifarious credential suggesting prestige, connections, perhaps intelligence. Andrew Hacker, who went here half a century ago, speaks often of the finishing school aspect of colleges like this one.

Because Amherst is a credential, one can take something valuable from here even without learning a thing in our courses. And this is perhaps the most abiding temptation to cheat here and elsewhere: cheating gets something for free, not learning but the substitute for learning, its credential. Whether we cheat on a single test or a whole course, or on all tests in all courses, the gain is that we get something that others have had to work for, and we get it for free. We become free riders on Amherst's reputation for turning out well-educated graduates.

Free riding appeals to all of us, I suspect. We are all lazy in one measure or another and we shouldn't underestimate laziness as a motivation for cheating: We all have the desire, all things considered, to expend as little effort as possible to get what we want.

But I have the impression that simple laziness accounts for less cheating and dishonesty than this implies. Laziness, after all, as Socrates might have said, is itself lazy: its ideal is that we should expend no effort at all. Laziness has to join with the desire to get hold of at least the credential of learning before it would push any of us to take the risks of cheating.

And this leads me back to ideas, which is what Amherst is really about: the few times I've discussed cheating with someone who has both done it and owned up to it, I've been struck not by the laziness of the person but, to the contrary, by the energy of both the enterprise and the explanation. It takes some effort to devise a method for cheating; it takes even more, it seems, to convince ourselves that we were right to do so—or at least not so very wrong. And in this sense the cheater is an old-fashioned philosopher, interested like the rest of us in argument and ideas.

The cheater's main ideas seem to be these: Everyone around us values credentials more than they should. Students compete with one another for good grades so as to get into good graduate schools so as to get good jobs. All of this competition for grades makes a travesty of learning. So the smartest thing to do is to subvert the immoral system and grab what really counts, which turns out to be the grade.
This is a moral and political argument at heart. But at best it is an unconvincing one.

If the system is immoral, then we ought to get rid of it—and the sooner the better. Fight to abolish grades or, if that's utopian and unrealistic, vow to work for learning only. Cheating for grades only makes things worse: it puts grades before all else, before learning and ideas.

Twenty or thirty years from now you will recall your first days at Amherst College. You will remember faces and friends, some late-night conversations, a professor's opening lecture. You're not likely to recall what I say here or what the deans said during orientation. But I guarantee you that you will remember any cheating that you do or see at Amherst. The College cannot save any of us from the temptation. And it would be a lesser place were we to try: less free, less trusting, less interested in your ideas and your learning. No college, no law, can guard us safely from dishonesty in our studies or our careers or our personal lives. But I urge you to guard yourselves from betraying so much of what we gather here to do.

Thank you.

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