First, a short dialogue typical of my last month or two…Acquaintance (A): Oh, I’m surprised to see you still around. Aren’t you going away to school?
LU student (LS): Yes, I’m still going away. But we start late.
LS: We don’t start classes until the 24th.
A: Of August?
LS: No, September.
A: WOW, that’s late. Are you on quarters?
LS: No, trimesters.
A: Oh. So when do you get out? When’s your spring break?
LS: Towards the middle of June, and the end of March.
A: That’s kinda rough.
LS: Yeah… (awkward pause)
I expect I’m not the only one who has suffered such conversational sterility, especially during the last month of summers back home. And yet, it seems understandable, ‘the Trimester Fixation,’ in light of the rules of the catch-up chit-chat games; that is, the hunt for the impersonal hook. My quest took me all the way to the low road…
But senior streak drew merely a chuckle from even my most conservative, Christian fundamentalist friends. What surprised me, though, was what DID shock them: the honor code.
Many of my friends attend a conservative Christian university north of Chicago, where my mom teaches piano. Students are governed by strict rules and curfews, and generally distrusted in the name of Jesus Christ. That we, liberal students, should get such freedoms intrigues those I run into:
A: Wait…So you don’t have proctored exams?
LS: Well, sometimes professors sit in when they’re grading papers anyway. Sometimes when professors don’t feel like waking up early, we’ll get three and a half hours of our own choosing to write our final without notes or books. It’s quite convenient.
A: But…but…but… don’t people cheat?
LS: I suppose some do. Most don’t.
A: Why not, though? I mean, it’s not like you would get caught.
LS: Well, I get pissed off if someone else isn’t playing by the rules and I am. So there’s a snitch factor. But I don’t think there’s really a point to cheating as long as you have the freedoms.
A: But I mean, come on, you didn’t study and you’re in the exam…What’s stopping you?
Don’t people cheat? It’s not like you would get caught. What’s stopping you?
What’s stopping me? I didn’t have an answer beyond the stale ‘it’s the right thing’ for the first few times the question faced me. Then a terribly liberating, true answer came to my mind: nothing.
There are no RLAs in my practice room, in my classroom, in my dorm making sure I shut my textbook. It’s just me, a pen, paper, and what I know. Of course, if I do get caught there’s hell to pay. My friends were clamoring to know the punishments: suspensions? expulsions?
I was surprised to find myself more hung up on the good stuff…no more 8:30 exams when I had lazy professors. No more being treated like a criminal when I wanted to be treated like a student. I was learning to do the right thing. Of course I’ve wanted to cheat, and even thought about it. Those have been the moments, for me, of true character education, when something in me asks: why not crack open the book? As I move through Lawrence, I have more answers to these questions beyond that ‘right thing’ stuff. ‘I’ve done mediocre work all term. Why should I suddenly care about my grade now?’ ‘I’ve gotta learn a new way to memorize jazz licks sooner or later.’ ‘Next time I’ll read closer.’ My personal favorite? ‘No thanks.’ Then, of course, from time to time I’ll think of Plato and that helps me do the right thing. Of course.
And of course there are plenty of external benefits to such ‘character education’ apart from fuzzy good feelings and a vague sense of ‘corporate responsibility.’ Someday, a friend of mine from that college will look over some paperwork, a timesheet, or someone else’s spouse. Despite years of Biblical training and a spiritual center, that may be the first moment he’s wondered, What’s stopping you? So next time you’re stuck in an awful conversation, try talking about the right thing. It’s funny how that can freak out the squares.