One of my professors asked my class last week what we thought about the Harvard cheating scandal, in which 125 students plagiarized or collaborated on a take-home final exam. We were unanimous in our response: Yes, cheating goes on at Georgetown and probably every college campus. It surprised me that even that honest boy who irons his shirts chimed in to the unanimous conclusion: The biggest causes of cheating are the pressure to succeed and the fear of failure.
But pressure and fear are familiar demons on college campuses. They have been around for decades. Yet why does our generation feel as though these demons are stronger and hungrier for us today?
It’s not because only our generation has the daunting burden of student loans. Nor is our fear stronger because only our generation’s parents and grandparents have hope for our futures. Social pressure to score a job — and a prestigious one at that — has been around forever.
Pressure and fear are stronger today because our generation is more susceptible to the threats they pose. For our generation, the elements that motivate us to behave the way students at Harvard did — prestige and ambition — elicit these responses more than ever before.
This odd relationship can be explained in part by how we were raised to think and how we perform under uncertain circumstances. There was a trend in the 1990s for parents to ask their children about their opinions. Selective from an early age, we have grown up to express and, at times, re-create, who we think we are. Now, the Internet allows us to selectively choose how we present ourselves — from things as trivial as a Facebook post or as important as an academic paper.
But when we are put to the test (literally), we must perform spontaneously. When we actually have to write something without first consulting other material, the fear of failure prevents our generation from performing to our established standards. When we study for tests like Advanced Placement exams or the SAT, we memorize and perfect the test patterns. We make our spontaneous performances as unspontaneous as possible.
Since so much of what we have attained has been premeditated, moments where we’re expected to perform on the fly — say, on a test or a paper — suddenly expose us for who we really are. Our generation is different because we are more accustomed to being successful than ever before. Cheaters, however unscrupulous, maintain that success gap by cheating.
So if Georgetown houses the same types of students as any other prestigious university, then I’d say, without doubt, we should be next. But since we signed on for a Jesuit education in a small school with small friend groups and a social life based largely on extracurricular activities, I believe that we won’t be.
Although a small part of the Honor Code is institutional bureaucracy, a larger part of it is an understanding that we are here to learn for learning’s sake. Our classes are small, so inevitably, we do the readings and participate in class discussions. We naturally become interested. Small elective courses — hallmarks of a liberal arts education — discourage cheating, because true interest draws us into genuine learning.
Moreover, Georgetown is big-friend-group repellent. Social culture here centers on inner circles of trust, with a secondary and less-intimate outer circle. Jesuit ideals and friend groups hold you accountable for your own self worth. You are responsible for maintaining a sense of pride in who you are and how you work, because the people around you know and care about you.
Cheating won’t stop at any educational institution, but I would argue that our class’ reaction after we read that article sent a misguided message. We were willing to claim that there’s pressure to cheat and that we’re anxious about the future, but we were less ready to acknowledge that the campus atmosphere engages us enough to help us resist the temptation of cheating.
MASHA GONCHAROVA is a junior in the College.