Cheating or Standing on the Shoulders of Giants?

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”
― Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

One of the various assignments for the course that I chose to follow up on is the Week 1 Challenge, which is as follows:

Use cheating as a weapon. How can you use the idea of cheating as a tool to take apart the structures that you work in? What does it say about learning? About power? About how you see teaching?

Although I may not answer these questions directly, my intention is to hint at some responses within this blog.

“Cheating” is defined in different ways but for the purpose of this blog, I would like to use the following definition as it applies best to the field of education.   Cheating is to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something.  Did I get that right?  It really doesn’t sound that horrible except for the breaking a rule or law part, right?

For some unknown and perhaps innately rhizomatic reason, the idea of cheating then lead me to recall an idea and a song from my studies and experiences.  The idea comes from the 12 century scholar Bernard of Chartres who is quoted as saying, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”  (Wikipedia) Apparently, this was an accepted way of looking at the world,  learning and one’s work during the time and perhaps to a certain extent even today.  Like modern day cheating, one sought out advantages by using the work and advancements of others to build upon his/her own thoughts, ideas, or positions.  However, there is no mention of breaking laws or rules.   In addition this manuscript shows no ill will or usurping of the giant’s status:


Furthermore, both the dwarf and the giant appear to be looking ahead almost collaboratively at a portion of the text (knowledge). Here David is clearly not battling nor stealing from Goliath, but note that the dwarf is able to see a bit further than the eye level of the giant.  This idea that one can see further than those that came before and because of them as well is central to Bernard’s idea.

For the most part within the world that we live and work, the word “cheating” has enormously negative connotations ranging from infidelity to using performance enhancers to win races as well as cheating on tests.   There are abundant and clearly defined rules and laws in our societies that define and prohibit cheating, and there is a case to be made that we need many of them.

However, my questions are as follows, if we remove some of the rules and laws about cheating within the realm of education and learning, are we not freeing up space and time to work collaboratively?  Can we then take the opportunity to acknowledge the giant in others and allow them to guide us?  At the same time, can we acknowledge the giant in ourselves and offer up our unique gifts to others? Are  collaboration and cheating sometimes just two sides of the same coin? If so can we find ways to flip the golden coin from time to time within an educational setting?

PicMonkey Collage

On that note, I’ll leave you with the song which I mentioned earlier from one of my favourite bands in the late 80’s from my college town, Athens, Georgia.  “The King of Bird” by REM is about standing on the shoulders of giants and that often futile angst that one feels trying find his/her own way  or “mean idea” in a culture that values uniqueness and individuality.  However, like the wise ancient Greek chorus of antiquity, the chorus in this particular song always comes back with “Standing on the shoulders of giants…” because we simply and always are building on past experience, living in symbiosis and rhizomatically woven together.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 10.54.57 AM

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12 Responses to Cheating or Standing on the Shoulders of Giants?

  1. balimaha says:

    hi Maureen. Your post made me think of your definition of cheating as “breaking rules/laws” – and realize that not all rules/laws are just or justifiable.
    Copyright is one such law that can seem truly unjust and anti-learning when you think of the prices of learning materials for people in the developing world – and how they find cheap (but illegal) ways to share information, software, etc., – without these, they would not be able to keep up with knowledge and technology development in richer countries.

    Thanks also for bringing in the idea of standing on the shoulders of giants. Though I had hear the expression before, I had not thought of it in the way you’ve analyzed it so beautifully here (it has some ideas similar to my post about cheating as learning via inadvertent plagiarism; I hope you don’t mind me posting the link here:

    • mtmaher says:

      Thanks for reading and it is indeed certainly true that the developing world could benefit greatly from a relaxation of copyright laws. There is such a huge disparity between the rich and the poor and their opportunities for learning. Ownership of ideas perhaps is an idea that is in need of reform. Inadavertent plagiarism is something that we all knowingly and sometimes unknowingly practice as we are the sum of all that we have ever read or experienced as well as the millions of contacts and connections we make in a lifetime. I’ll check out your post too. Thanks again for commenting

  2. I like the image and the idea of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Great metaphor. I think alot of what we see in this course will be our sharing and interpretation of metaphors — and I would like to explore his more based on Gardner Campbell’s theory of “meaning making.” As your conversation with Balimaha above indicates there is a definite chasm between copyright and collaboration in this digital age of the remix. Nice to see you blogging again. 🙂

    • mtmaher says:

      Thanks for the support Cathleen. Indeed there are numerous great metaphors for our “meaning making” experience. I’ll have to check out Campell more. It is awesome to have a community in which share them and build upon them together. Interesting how we often need external motivations and other people to make us blog. Essentially blogs can be viewed as remixes as well spurred on and fed by our contacts and connections with other peoples words, thoughts and requirements.

  3. Pingback: Netiquette and the trouble with Community #rhizo14 | Reflecting Allowed

  4. epurser says:

    lovely reflection Maureen 🙂 going back to the ‘dark’ ages there reminds me of how much more enlightened thinking was then! I find it a pretty fascinating and frustrating double bind we’re in, in contemporary capitalist culture, that we have to defend a concept like copyright and practices of detecting and punishing plagiarism, in order to maintain the fiction of our being independent individuals with separate thoughts that originate in our ‘own’ minds…. The copyleft movement has a long way to go !

    • balimaha says:

      Hey epurser – I was just about to write a blog post about the illusion that ideas truly originate in our minds independently. The fact that u just wrote that idea right here is proof that my idea is not original – I have been thinking a lot recently about this phenomenon and I think there is an aspect of social media (that we are maybe reading similar blogs and tweets) and have similat theory backgrounds (eg as educators about social conatructivism) and now have a similar interest (rhizomatic learning) such that our ideas aee influenced by each others in ways that are not always explicit or conscious

    • mtmaher says:

      Hi Emily! Thanks for commenting. Yes, this fiction of our independence is very much alive and well and I am fascinated by rhizomatic learning as an indirect challenge to that. Thanks for bringing up the issue of copyright as a problem directly related to our own identity and fictional ideas of idependence as it seems there is a huge amount of ego involved. I often think that a large dose of buddhist non-attachment to things, people, outcomes etc… into our cultures would allay some of the issues that surround copyright as well as other isssues. Perhaps that is trending on moral, religious or social ground though:)

  5. The idea of cheating and collaboratkng being two sides of the same coin is really giving me pause to think, because I at first just thought, well, collaboration can be done without breaking any rules or getting an unfair advantage, depending on the circumstances in which it’s done. So I didn’t see the two as being that similar, except insofar as one could cheat by collaborating where that is against the rules. But it could be, maybe, that many forms of cheating involve collaboration, or somehow express in themselves the idea of collaboration, standing on others’ shoulders. Except when you come up with answers yourself & bring them to a test when you’re not supposed to, perhaps. But other forms may indeed involve collaboration more than I initially thought. I’ll have to consider further, & thanks for the push to do so!

    • mtmaher says:

      Hi Christina! Thanks for commenting. Indeed there is alot to think about regarding cheating and collaboration. If we give a test in class and say that each student has to work individually and keep their eyes on their own test, then cheating/colIaboration is prohibited. However, giving the same test and telling students to work together to come up with the answers, then cheating/collaboration is okay. It has much to do with common practice or the rules and laws in place, which need to be revisited for the 21st century as its seems to me that we all really get “there” due to many factors and not just our own efforts but due to our experience, studies, geography and the wonderful, strange, tragic interactions with others. However, I definitely do not have it all figured out, but as you say, sometimes our thoughts push each other to think and stretch our definitions. It is definitely great to dialogue with others about this topic. Thanks again.

  6. balimaha says:

    Hey Chrisine, ur comment made me think of two things: first when we stand on another’s shoulder, are we taking advantage of them? When the giant person publishes s/he is allowing u to stand on his/her shoulder. But collaboration is more reciprocal hopefully where we take turns standing o each other’s shoulders? This brings up the issue of ethics of lurking and the right to be silent but the disadvantages of that to other learners

    Also: ur point about cheating in life involving illegal collaboration reminded me of the misconception that “helping” another in an exam is deemed ethical (students don’t realize they have put others at a disadvantage, they just think they have been helpful)
    i had two otherthoughts to share but got interrupted and loat them. Real life gets in the way!

  7. Pingback: Is this what rhizomatic learning is? #rhizo14 | Reflecting Allowed

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