Cheating Harvard

Adam Wheeler defrauded Harvard out of thousands of dollars: $31,000 in financial aid, $8,000 in a research grant, and $6,000 in English prizes. Many applauded his feat while others are appalled by his nerve. Had his hubris not gotten the best of him — vying for the prestigious Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships — Wheeler would had walked away this June with a Harvard degree.

As Wheeler’s “web of lies” begin to untangle here in Middlesex District Court, which will no doubt result in him doing some jail time, as parents, we all must ask ourselves what went wrong.

What messages — both verbally and subliminally — are we telling our children about personal excellence?

Clearly we can say Wheeler tried to cheat his way through Harvard, but have we, as a culture and parents, not cheated children like Wheeler by over emphasizing the need for them to be number one?

Failure, a much-tabooed subject on college campuses, is not talked about much, especially in such a place as Harvard. But in competitive milieus, the fear of failure is the specter that haunts most students.

When only the grade of A is some students’ only measure of success, some will cheat by any means necessary.

Many students will fail somewhere along their academic journey, but it will have nothing to do with the grade they received. It is instead about the culture in which they reside.

We live in a society that is hypercritical of failure and super exuberant about success. As a culture, we have developed a false and damaging dichotomy about the relationship between failure and success: that success has become a public affair of celebration and failure a private funeral of condemnation.

We think of failure as a hindrance to human achievement and to professional and academic excellence.

For example, in watching the 1996 Olympics, which were held in Atlanta, Georgia, I was appalled by one of its slogans that represented not only the spirit of the Olympic Games but also the ethos in our sports culture.

On billboards throughout Atlanta, in television commercials and in many sports magazines like “Sports Illustrated” the message was loud and clear about what constituted athletic excellence.

It said: “When you come in second place, you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold.”

Clearly what this slogan is saying is if you are not number one, you are a failure. Success is only attainable if you make it to the top, and only one person can be there.

Such a message, however, ignores the success in training and disciplining one’s mind and body to compete. It ignores the success of competing at a world-class level. And it undermines the importance of camaraderie, the celebration of people worldwide joined by a common goal and interest, and most importantly, it undermines the human spirit.

This example, of course, is not one particular to sports. Instead it’s representative of a paradigm that’s pervasive and emblematic in every arena of American life. Success is understood, predicated, and maintained in highly competitive system that is organized around and values money and power above personal integrity.

Not to compete in this system constitutes failure on your part. Not to win in this system constitutes failure on your part. And not to honor this system also constitutes failure on your part.

In an academic culture where the objective is to be number one, by any means necessary, the purpose of obtaining education is lost. And oftentimes the purpose also is trumped by the desire to get credentials.

Research studies by the Rutgers University Management Education Center and the University of Santa Clara Center for Academic Integrity reported that 70 to 90 percent of college students cheat. But the most disturbing information gleaned from these studies is that many students embrace cheating as an acceptable practice because “everybody does it.”

Just how far are we willing to go to be successful?

Some argue that Wheeler played the “game of success” successfully; he fraudulently claimed to be fluent in four languages, received a perfect SAT score of 1600, received perfect grades throughout his first year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and coauthored several books.

Others argue that Wheeler undermined the integrity of competition.

In a culture that demands us to be number one in all aspects of our lives, I think Wheeler’s criminal behavior is an indictment about our culture.

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