Don’t sacrifice honesty at the altar of success

26 January 2012 , Educational Issues

I will never forget the day when our professor handed out an exam, stayed 10 minutes, then said: “If you don’t have any questions, I’m going to go to my office; I will be back in an hour.” He left us alone, and for the entire duration of the exam, not a word was exchanged among the students, and no one attempted to open a notebook or use any material that could help in that difficult exam.

That was in graduate school, in the US, and I witnessed the highest level of honesty and civility in the context of education. Previous to that, in my undergraduate environment back home, I had been used to students communicating and cheating (or at least attempting to) in every possible way.

I don’t mean to imply that students in the US are honest, but in our part of the world, cheating is the norm. I am merely reporting what it feels like when one witnesses proper educational attitudes, and how that affects one’s outlook in life. Indeed, cheating (using anything not allowed) and plagiarism (copying even one sentence from somewhere without proper referencing or acknowledgment) is a worldwide phenomenon. There are countless reports from everywhere about cheating, by students and anyone who needs to ‘succeed’ in any exam or in a competition (say for a job or a higher position).

In fact, there are agencies that one can order fully finished essays from even doctors and professors have been found to cheat, and in 2010 a report from a reputable institution showed solid evidence about at least two ministers who had committed several acts of plagiarism in their country, not to mention large numbers of fraudulent publications in a number of countries.


What I want to highlight is not a difference in cultures about people wanting to or being tempted to cheat, it is rather the norms that are put in place and emphasised, and the punishment that is meted in cases of plagiarism and deceit. In 2010, the Shaikh Zayed Book Award was withdrawn from its winner when evidence was received about numerous instances of plagiarism in the winning work. We all applauded.

In July 2008, University World News published a report titled Research plagued by plagiarism about an Arab country — though the problem is really widespread. In it, several stunning cases of plagiarism were mentioned, but the perpetrators were given minimal punishment. Officials blamed the phenomenon on the lack of research funds and on the low academic salaries in that country. Others saw the situation as not particularly significant, noting that plagiarism is a worldwide problem.

I think this is an issue which requires the attention of educators, religious scholars, jurists, and anyone who plays a leading role in society. If we make it clear to students and youngsters that plagiarism and cheating are a real crime, socially, culturally, religiously, and legally, they will certainly grow up with a sharp conscience and an inner compass for any instance of deceit they may face. At present, cheating in schools is still largely an acceptable behaviour — among students, that is, who consider it a form of helping a friend in need. Moreover, the pressure to succeed at any cost is too much for many to resist using unethical and illegal means.

At my university, as in many others, students are asked to sign a ‘pledge of honour’ on the day they start their college life. Furthermore, the university catalogue devotes two full pages to the problem, and every course syllabus contains a paragraph reminding the students that plagiarism and cheating are academic violations and will result in stiff penalties. At the very first offence, the name of the culprit is recorded in the dean’s office, so any later violation (even in another course, perhaps a year or more afterwards), the administration can quickly check and find if the offence is not the first one, in which case exclusion from the university becomes a probable outcome.

Fifteen years ago, Francis Fukuyama published a book he titled Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, in which he linked trust in a society to prosperity. Fifteen centuries before him, the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had stated simply: “Whoever cheats us is not one of us.”

And many other leaders and thinkers in history emphasised the value of honesty and trust both for the individual and the society as a whole.

Punishment is necessary, but it is not enough. We need to enlist all social actors and educators to engrain the principle of honesty and trustworthiness among our children and students; without it, there can be no social, economic or cultural progress.