Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 1, 2012
On the Harvard campus, huge shade trees arch over an expansive commons. Students pace purposefully to classes in which they will be ordained as the future ruling class of America.
A few weeks ago, as I took in this idyllic picture, a scandal was erupting into an ugly boil that disfigured this fabled façade. At Harvard, where the Latin word “veritas” (truth) is carved into stone over the portals to success, the taint of cheating sent a tremor that shakes the foundations of American culture.
I walked through Harvard that day feeling the weight of history, the presence of great minds – all of it called into question by troubling reports in the Boston Globe. The implications are enormous, forming an indictment of the all-out competition for success that underlies our prevailing cultural values.
My wife and I had just dropped off our son in Maine at a college far less prestigious than Harvard, a school where cheating would be an absurdity if it were possible at all. College of the Atlantic is focused on the environment, sustainability and social justice. This is not the curriculum of the American nobility, nor is it where the ruling class goes to acquire the tools of power.
At Harvard, our Boston hosts led us to the statue of John Harvard, whose bronze foot is rubbed to a polished gold. “It’s supposed to be good luck to rub his foot,” our hosts said with a suggestive nod. My wife and I followed the obligatory tradition and touched the pedal extremity.
It was only later I read in the Harvard Crimson that tourists touch the toe by day, and Harvard students pee on it by night. Perhaps Harvard students urinate on the lucky toe because many of them employ other means than luck to achieve personal gratification.
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As I observed the student body that day, I wondered how desperate is the competition at Harvard, whose selective ranks fill influential niches in the highest echelons of business, government, science and education, occupations where cheating is not among the prescribed traits of character. Or is it?
Top-level bankers cheated the American public and precipitated the Great Recession of 2008. Top government officials cheat humanity each time they launch spurious wars. Top-level scientists cheat their colleagues by falsifying studies to keep funds flowing. Corporate CEOs cheat the world on their way to the top of the economic food chain by profiting on weapons, cigarettes, alcohol, fast foods, violent video games and a host of other ills.
Institutional cheating is historically ingrained into rogue capitalists who use a cornucopia of material rewards to lure talented young people into unethical roles and set them up like kings for their complicity. Many are respected and celebrated.
The apogee of cheating is found in American politics, where subterfuge, deceit and misinformation are strategic to the electoral process at the highest levels. How many rising political stars went to Harvard or comparable schools? How many cheated to get there in the first place?
According to a recent survey of students at Stuyvesant High in New York, cheating is de rigueur. Said one student: “Everyone took it as a necessary evil to get through.”
The Harvard cheats practiced their necessary evil on their classmates, their friends, their families and the institution that confers their privilege. In the final outcome, society pays the price for cheating, with corruption of its core values and a gross lack of integrity. The beneficiaries of such decadence are those who don’t get caught.
As in major sports, where winning is everything, so it seems to be in the highest circles of power. Learning that game and playing it inscrutably becomes part of a warped learning curve for a segment of high achievers who parlay conscience for credentials while grabbing for the golden rings of money, fame and power.
A percentage of top students, the highest echelon of America’s youth, apparently flunked lessons in ethics, in fairness, in the meaning of integrity for the individual and society. At Harvard, they ignored the meaning of “veritas” at the very place where it is etched into monuments of stone for us naive tourists to see.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.