The deep silence of integrity

There was pin-drop silence in the room.  Occasionally, I could hear someone clearing his throat hesitantly or the scratching of pens and pencils on paper.  We were all afraid to lift our eyes to look around the room or even breathe loudly.

It was a mid-term test and the professor had left us students alone in the room. He had distributed the question papers and said that he had to do something urgent and would be back in twenty minutes.  He said that we should work on our test; he is trusting us not to talk or cheat during the exam.  And then, surprisingly, he simply left.

Maybe he was standing and listening to us right outside the door the whole time.  Maybe he actually had something urgent which needed to be done immediately.  Maybe he was conducting an experiment on whether students would cheat on a test if there was no invigilator in the room.  Or maybe he had simply made a bet with a colleague.

Whatever the case, he left his class of about 40 students alone in the examination hall, for a test which was worth probably 30% of the course grade.  This was a novel experience for me, as a young undergraduate at the University of California, at Berkeley.  Never had any teacher left the class during an exam.

He was gone for about 20 minutes.  To me, it felt like an eternity.  I had never seen a bunch of undergrads observe such pin-drop silence even during the most fascinating lectures.  For the next 20 minutes, I did not hear a single voluntary human sound.  Even the clearing of someone’s throat sounded apologetic and hesitant.  Such was the burden of integrity placed on us, that we complied half out of fear of being accused of cheating, and half out of pride of displaying impeccable integrity.

I contrast this experience of two decades ago with a recent experience.  A group of about 40 newly admitted students sitting for a test worth about 20% of their course grade.  Despite the invigilator repeatedly reminding students to not talk during the test, there is recurrent murmuring.  The invigilator has to leave the room for one minute to facilitate a swap with a professor in another room.  When the professor enters, he finds several students talking. He admonishes them and is forced to change the seat of a student and still the murmuring continues.

When I discussed with students why they cheated, I received startling responses.  One student claimed that he didn’t cheat.  Surprised, I asked him, “You didn’t talk at all in the class?”

He replied, “Yes, I talked but I didn’t cheat.”

“What did you talk about?”

“I asked her about question 6.”

Incredulous, I asked, “Isn’t that cheating?”

“No. I only asked one question.  Cheating is when you copy the whole test. And, she said that she didn’t know the answer.  So I didn’t cheat.”

I almost laughed.  I had to explain that whether it was one question or all, whether he got a useful response or not, his actions constituted cheating.

His response?  “I am from UP.  This is how things are done there.”

Another student offered a variant of this excuse:  “I didn’t know that this is not allowed at Azim Premji University. This is my first test here.”  One student who hadn’t cheated defended others by claiming that it was the invigilator’s responsibility to “snatch away their papers” instead of only telling them to not talk and cheat, thus blaming the invigilator for lack of vigilance.

Of course, the majority of incoming students hadn’t cheat and only a few had. But the fact that many who hadn’t cheated saw cheating as a matter of process compliance and not integrity is both surprising and disheartening.  Today’s students are going to be the professionals of tomorrow. They are going to be the professionals who power the future economy, who go on to become leaders of small and large companies, and in the my university’s case, become development practitioners working to tackle issues of climate change, farmers’ livelihoods, public health and social justice.

In setting up Indian students on an almost maniacal pursuit of high marks, we have taught them that not only must they do ‘whatever it takes’ to get those high marks, but that it is perfectly acceptable to do so.

In our masters program, we have just two years to bring about a dramatic change in the mindset of students who come with such beliefs, to inculcate integrity and commitment, not only through fear of being caught, but by understanding the link between personal integrity and societal outcomes.  We hope to help these students see that moral corruption is not just about the large scams in the newspapers. It is also the traffic cops taking a bribe from motorcyclists without documents; the doctors prescribing procedures we don’t need; and some students cheating in exams in the hope of better jobs.

When comparing this recent experience with that from an un-invigilated test of two decades ago, I can’t help but hope that in the two years we have them, we are able to help students realize that they don’t need an invigilator to stay honest.  And that leading social change is not always about loud raucous speeches, long dharnas and high-visibility innovation; often leading social change starts with personally demonstrating the deep silence of integrity arising from within.

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