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.

X-Ray Vision


A post on a slightly different topic, something which I have been thinking about again, as I’m back in academia…

When I was in 10th, my physics teacher asked in a test, “What would happen if our sun emitted only X-rays instead of visible light? What would we see?”  I wrote, “Humans would probably have evolved to see in x-rays. We would see everything around us in shorter wavelengths, and people as skeletons with shadowy muscles.”  He marked my answer wrong.  What he wanted us to reply was that we won’t be able to see anything since our eyes only see visible light.

Over time I have come to see this small exchange as emblematic of some of the problems of how school subjects are taught.  My response to the x-ray question combined my knowledge of evolution and physics, but was treated as an unacceptable answer in a physics class.

When teachers define learning in narrow ways and require students to see the world through the lens of only one school subject, they fail to help students interpret, understand and explore the world around them.  They fail to inspire.

Another example, which is more embarrassing: When I was teenager, one day I looked up in the sky and was shocked to see the moon in daylight.  Throughout my school years I had been taught that the moon comes out at night.  I never questioned the textbooks:  I simply believed what was written in clear black print in the textbooks.

So imagine my shock one day suddenly seeing this anomaly hanging brightly in the sky, defying everything I thought I knew.  Luckily I was studying physics and later that day I did various calculations, looked up sunrise and moonrise times in the newspaper (this was pre-internet) and calculated the outcomes of some gedanken (thought) experiments and figured out that, indeed, moon can and is often above the horizon simultaneously with the sun.  Recently, my mother-in-law asked me the same question. She had gone through decades of life with the same belief.  I had to explain the phenomenon to her and convince her that this is completely natural.

This is not a problem just with science teaching. I still distinctly remember another incident:  I was sitting in my high school history class. We were going through a passage on the American civil war.  After having us all read a short paragraph in the textbook the teacher asked us, “What would you have done if you were General Lee?”  I had shifted to a new school and this was one of the first few history classes there. I was so completely surprised by this question, that even now, so many decades later, that scene is crystal clear in my mind.  In my school, history classes were the process of memorizing important dates and lifetimes of emperors and empires.  Memorizing entire passages about the Russian and French revolutions from cyclostyled sheets and regurgitating them whole in exams.  Even though I was good at regurgitating, I never really saw the point of it.  But as I sat through this class on American civil war, I had a life-changing epiphany about the purpose of learning history.  This experience changed my relationship with history:  As I grew into adulthood, I acquired a taste for reading history, so much so, that some of the most enjoyable books I have read have been about history of people, of places and of ideas.

Such encounters with the school education system made me realize the importance of having good teachers who encourage students to think beyond the “text” of the curriculum, to engage with subjects and ideas and not just focus on completing the curriculum in the time available.  It led me to get deeply involved in school education issues in India from a fairly young age. And it led to a lifelong interest in teaching and exploring classroom pedagogy.

Like most people, I’ve had some exceptional teachers and many mediocre ones.  But the strength of the exceptional ones was not necessarily the depth of knowledge of their subject areas, but to inspire students to really think about what we were reading, to reflect upon subjects and topics deeply and to internalize their meanings in our own ways.

My physics mentor used to say that you should be able to explain any physics concept, no matter how complex, to your grandmother.  I took that to heart.  I worked hard at developing an intuitive understanding of physics, something I could articulate in words.  As I was completing my Ph.D. and giving “job talks”, the most common comments I received were about how well I had explained my area of research to people not from my field.  To me, these compliments mattered as much as, perhaps even more than, comments about the importance or quality of my research.

Years later, when I started teaching, my approach was to avoid jargon and focus on the underlying concepts and ideas.  To excite students about the topics I was teaching, whether it was physics, or later in life, business management or, more recently, agricultural livelihoods.  Some students, who view learning a subject as familiarization with disciplinary jargon, find this approach disconcerting.  But I persist because I still agree with my mentor, that if you cannot explain your ideas to your grandmother, perhaps you yourself haven’t really understood them well.