Candid Conversations about Cheating, Conduct, and Character
Published in the Nov. 13, 2013, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly
When I asked our incoming freshmen to read Professor Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code to inaugurate the Princeton Pre-read program, I envisioned engaging members of the Class of 2017 in a series of provocative discussions about concepts of honor and the role it plays in their lives.
The experience has turned out even better than I anticipated.
My goal in creating the Princeton Pre-read was twofold: to initiate a new tradition to orient our newest students to the spirit of inquiry and discourse at the core of a liberal arts education; and, by holding discussions about the book in the residential colleges, to introduce freshmen to the University’s distinctive blend of scholarly and residential life.
The Honor Code was an ideal selection for the first Pre-read because it is both elegant and relevant — a beautifully written, highly accessible treatise on the ways in which honor has influenced human behavior and shaped societies. For Princeton students, The Honor Code is particularly meaningful, as the book shares the name of the pledge that, since the late 19th century, has signified their commitment to academic integrity.
The Pre-read discussions early this fall have been heartening, as the freshmen have shown me that they take questions of honor seriously and that their interest in the subject goes beyond simply fulfilling an assignment foisted upon them by their new president.
My first Pre-read encounter was with Community Action participants in a church in Lawrenceville during Orientation Week. We met over a pasta dinner fixed by the students. As I had hoped, they had no trouble connecting Professor Appiah’s arguments to their personal experiences. One freshman reflected on how Princeton’s Honor Code compared to the code of conduct maintained at his secondary school in Pakistan, and another related a discouraging tale about a talented friend who refrained from cheating only because he feared being caught.
Five days later, I introduced Professor Appiah on stage at McCarter Theatre for his Freshman Assembly lecture on The Honor Code, and was impressed by the thoughtful questions posed to him by students following his talk. A question about sexual misconduct from that evening spawned a follow-up discussion during my subsequent visit with freshmen at Mathey College. We exchanged ideas about how concepts of honor and “manliness,” as well as popular songs and tasteless jokes that trivialized the harms of rape, might affect the incidence of sexual misconduct on campus.
The next day, meeting with freshmen at Forbes College, I mentioned a recent Harvard Crimson survey in which 42 percent of incoming freshmen admitted to having cheated on a homework assignment or problem set. The statistic prompted a number of striking observations about the daunting pressures facing students today.
One freshman remarked that some students today may not view cheating as a grave moral offense; they may seek the advantage of gaining a higher test score by cheating, with no sense that their actions have an impact on others. Students may recoil at the thought of harming someone physically, he posited, but may not regard cheating as creating any comparable injury. Another student noted that his aversion to cheating is based purely on self-interest — simply put, if you cheat, you don’t learn to do things well, and so in the long run you fail.
When a third student noted the apparent increase in cheating today — in schools, in sports, on Wall Street — a classmate asked if these incidences actually are greater now. “To the older generation in the room, I would ask, are things really that different? Didn’t you see these cheating rings operating around you?”
I exchanged looks with Professor of Chemistry Michael Hecht, the master of Forbes College — we were (alas!) clearly the “older generation” in question. We shook our heads. Maybe we were naïve or blind to our high school surroundings, we said. But neither of us recalled the “cheating rings” that seemed commonplace to the questioner.
Something has changed, and not just in schools. The students suggested technological explanations (“it has become easier to cheat”) and social ones (“pressure has increased”). As Professor Hecht walked with me from Forbes after lunch, I wondered whether the shift might have something to do with the growing inequalities in our winner-take-all society. If the stakes in a competition get bigger, are people more tempted to cheat? If prizes for victory become enormous, do they dazzle people into overlooking the irreplaceable value of honor and character?
These questions are difficult and unsettling. But, as is always the case when I meet with Princeton students, I emerged from my Pre-read discussions feeling better about the world and optimistic about the future. These students approach their lives thoughtfully and with a genuine desire to do the right thing. My hope is that the critical thinking they have done about honor will spur continued reflection about how to cope with the demanding ethical challenges they will confront in the months and years to come.
These questions transcend generations, of course. I am accordingly delighted that alumni have had the opportunity to participate in conversations about The Honor Code through our Alumni Studies program. And I hope that at least some of you will find opportunities to discuss issues related to honor with our current students. I suspect that you will find these young people as inspiring as I do — and that they will value your mentorship and insights as they seek a way through Princeton and the world beyond it.