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 applaud 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.
Wheeler’s “web of lies” begin to untangle here in Middlesex District
Court, and that could 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 like Harvard, the
fear of failure is the specter that haunts most students.
When only the grade of A for
some students is their only measure of success, some will cheat
my 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’s about the culture they reside in.
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
We think of failure as a hindrance
to human achievement and to professional and academic excellence.
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
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 if you make it to the top, and only one 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 a highly competitive
system that is organized around and values money and power above
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 often times, the purpose also
is trumped by the desire to get credentials.
Research studies by the Rutgers University Management
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
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 his first year at Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, and coauthored several books.
argue that Wheeler undermined the integrity of competition.
In a culture that demands we
be number one in all aspects of our lives, I think Wheeler’s criminal
behavior is an indictment about our culture.
Editorial Board member, the Rev. Irene Monroe, is a religion columnist,
theologian, and public speaker. She is the Coordinator of the African-American
Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and
Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School
of Religion. A
native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College
and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served
as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard
Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. She was recently
named to MSNBC’s list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible
Prayers for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector
of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is
to contact the Rev. Monroe.