Our Family Cheating Scandal

Several in our family tackle the same newspaper’s crossword puzzle every day.  We’ve been having a bit of a debate. Is it, or is it not, cheating to look up an answer to a clue? No one is completing the puzzle for a prize, no one signs an honor code before being allowed to fill in any answers and most frequently, each day’s puzzle is long-forgotten before the next day’s newspaper arrives. The puzzle provides a few minutes of intellectual stimulation every morning, not a competitive step towards career advancement. 

Each day’s puzzle gets progressively harder as the week moves on. Each household that subscribes to the same newspaper has one member who enjoys the puzzle. After all, it is often much more relaxing than the news! Mondays and Tuesdays are relatively easy. Wednesday, most of us can manage. On Thursday, we occasionally work jointly. Friday, no one has time for a puzzle —Shabbat is coming! Various family members have different areas of specialty: sports, science, history, current pop-culture, pop-culture pre-1980, etc. Together, we do rather well. Sometimes, though we are all stumped, but we know that the answer is easily accessible via technology. 

That is when our naysayers chime in. While no one objects to our pooling resources (let’s hear it for family togetherness!), one or two of the non-puzzle fans have snidely suggested that looking up an answer is cheating. 

Our most recent discussion on this topic took place as a cheating scandal at West Point came to light. With tests being administered online, dozens of cadets have been cited for cheating on a calculus exam administered this past spring. Their actions are in direct contradiction to the West Point honor code, ”A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” 

The good news, if I can term it that, is that there have been other cheating scandals. There is no need to cry “the sky is falling” while seeing this as unprecedented misconduct. There is even a silver lining. Overwhelmingly, those who cheated were first-year students, a sharp contrast to the last large incident in 1976 that involved upperclassmen. One might hope that the occurrence points to a problem in instilling values, especially in light of the difficulties posed by COVID, that needs to be solved rather than being an example of complete and irrevocable failure. 

Nonetheless, I’m wondering if honesty is less valued today than it used to be. West Point’s honor code even sounds somewhat archaic. Ironically, this is partially due to an increase in transparency. In the glamorous Hollywood of the 1950s, studios falsely presented stars as romantically involved, knowing that they would lose audience if the truth of those stars’ private lives was known. Years ago, ubiquitous social media wasn’t present as it is today to instantly reveal the hypocrisy and mendacity of dishonest politicians. Was Bill Clinton’s disreputable behavior worse than John F. Kennedy’s or for that matter, Warren Gamaliel Harding? Or do we just know more about it? 

I am not downplaying the need for honesty or the negative ramifications when a populace does not believe (often with good reason) those in public office, the media, scientists and others who used to be seen as trustworthy. I’m just trying to figure out what would have happened if my grandfather, who used to fill in the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, would have had access to Google. Would he have used it? Would you? 

No cheating. Just daily clues into yourself.
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25 thoughts on “Our Family Cheating Scandal”

  1. For sixty years I have been doing crossword puzzles. This is the first I have heard of rules, possibly because I didn’t venture out into any organized group. To me, the puzzles are a teaching and learning tool. I used to make my own puzzles with physics and chemistry hints. It worked well as it displaced “open book” exams.

    1. Jay, there aren’t really “rules” other than some of the members of our family commented about those of us doing the puzzles looking up some answers. When I was actively homeschooling, I used to use puzzles regularly to reinforce learning. Thanks for reminding me about that.

  2. Susan, you are right. It does seem that my suggestions would be a lot of work, and crosswords are for the fun of it. I guess I was going for the “I’m not cheating, I’m learning!” approach. Happy 2021!

  3. I have actually been in this situation. I used to do the New York Times Sunday puzzle. And my rule unto myself was that I had to do it from memory alone. It was a good way of testing one’s knowledge. I was always happy when once in awhile I would complete the entire thing. I even won an Almanac once. However, my Father had the opposite view. If he didn’t know the answer, he would look it up; not only in the dictionary, but also in the Encyclopedia. He would read the entire article in the Encyclopedia; and thus learn more than if he hadn’t looked it up. So I think both ways are fine. I no longer do the crossword puzzles, as I have become enamored of Sudukos.

    1. Melanie, I am also a Soduku fan, but one a physical board rather than with paper and pencil. I have definitely learned some things by looking for answers but I also feel more sense of satisfaction when I complete the puzzle on my own.

  4. Cheating needs to be clearly defined before you throw that word around, seems to me since no promises were made, no code of conduct agreed upon and no harm done to anyone, I would rather call this just being clever. Cleverness is a good skill to have and like many other things can be used for good or evil. In some cases it can be a good thing when trying to overcome the will of evil men without a direct confrontation which you would most certainly lose. In every day situations your main considerations should always be: “does this violate God’s rules?” That’s my take on it anyway. God bless and happy new year!

    1. Jason, this issue did arise last week when our “non-crossword-puzzle-doers” challenged us, but it was mostly a light-hearted piece. Yes, cheating does have a definition and what we are doing doesn’t meet the grade.

  5. The challenge of a crossword puzzle is to ‘solve it’ without assistance, and when we do, we can give ourselves a pat on the back knowing we did it all on our own intellect. But when we’re stumped, we look for the answer and learn from it for next time. I don’t think it’s any more cheating than when asking someone else what the answer might be (for me, that would be my husband; especially, if I’m doing a sports crossword puzzle). Sometimes the ‘light goes on’ and there’s that ‘Oh yeah, now I remember moment.’ When I have to search or ask for the possible answer, I’ll use a different pen color to fill in the answer. It lets me know where I needed help or learned something I may have just forgotten. A Joyful, Peaceful New Year, and Happy Crosswording to all.

    1. I agree! It is there to test your memory and if you don’t know the answer and don’t look it up, then what is the point? Read your Torah and don’t understand what you read? Shouldn’t you ask America’s Rabbi so you can gain spiritual knowledge. I know I have learned a lot by listening to RDL!

  6. John Thomas Themalil

    Dear Respected Rabbi Daniel Lapin & Susan . May the good Lord bless you both richly and keep you this 2021 as He blessed you in 2020,,,,
    It’s just past midnight here. December 31, 2020 – January 1, 2021. 16 Tevet 5781.
    Blessings, John& Family
    Bangalore, India

  7. I wait until I can’t fill in anymore answers before looking them up. Prior to the internet I’d use a dictionary or encyclopedia to find an elusive answer. All that aside, it isn’t cheating no matter how you do it. Crosswords aren’t graded and don’t come with a rule book. It reminds me of a time I was telling a friend about how my dad and grandfather would literally spend hours playing a game of chess and how I had been impressed at their deep levels of concentration. My friend said, “you know, at some point shouldn’t we realize that it’s just a game?” After thinking about his comment I was a little less impressed with the way my forefathers played chess. He was right. At the end of the day it’s a game; also at the end of the day- it’s just a crossword puzzle.

    1. Leland, it is “just a game” or “just a crossword puzzle” but that might suggest limiting the time spent on the activity. However, while spending time, let’s say, on chess, I see great value in giving it one’s all. I’m sure the levels of concentration developed while playing chess helped your grandfather and father in other areas of their lives. It also gave them an activity in common, which is valuable in and of itself.

  8. To “chime in” on your question, “Is it, or is it not cheating to look up an answer to a clue?” : this is what came to mind. It would be cheating or dishonest (perhaps that is the issue –dishonesty) to look up a clue if the person doing so pretended that he or she had come up with the answer on his or her own, thus deceiving the others. But I doubt that is taking place here. So, in completing the puzzles, perhaps each person who looks up an answer using technology could do one or several of the following: let the others know that technology was consulted for a particularly difficult clue (which you’re likely already doing) and thus guard the integrity of the pursuit; keep a journal, or excel spreadsheet or just a list of the clues and answers found electronically (by date of newspaper, for example), as a personal or group challenge, and see if more or fewer “researches” are required as time goes by or to see if there is a trend or pattern to the types of clues on one’s list. It seems there are two ways nowadays to solve those crossword puzzles: one with one’s own knowledge, and one with one’s acquired knowledge (through technology). In keeping a list, perhaps the acquired knowledge may then become one’s own knowledge, and learning occurs, in addition to solving those puzzles. As long as people are honest about doing the searches on-line (or using a crossword clue dictionary, which may still exist), I don’t think it’s cheating. By the way, many years ago, my mom used to do crossword puzzles in the newspaper, and once in a while she was stumped by a clue. We didn’t have the technology then to look up something. I would look at the unfinished puzzle and see if I could provide an answer but couldn’t. I was always amazed that she had done as much as she had, because I found that the clues could have different interpretations. So, kudos to solving as many as you do!

    1. Marilyn, instead of a crossword puzzle dictionary, now there are lots of websites or apps. For my personal tastes, I don’t like using those. My piece was a bit tongue-in-cheek. We’re just having fun. Your suggestions seem like a lot of work, though if learning was the aim, they would be great ideas. We do impress ourselves when we get a particularly difficult (to us) clue.

  9. But is it cheating? whether playing against oneself or others… have the objectives and terms been defined clearly enough? I play some games and I realized that by strict rules anyone watching me might think I was cheating. But, and it may have to do with my age and cognitive function, I realized as I read your musing that my whole objective is not to win. Or rather to win has been redefined… how seldom do I need to refer to a cheat sheet or hint, how well can I retain data to beat the computer, how often am I able to NOT hit an undo button or retrace my moves. LOL… if I returned to the wins of my childhood I might never get the benefit of playing the game at all… I would have to give it up. LOLL

    1. I don’t really think it’s cheating, Les. You’re right. The objective matters. For us, the objective is having fun, occasionally learning something new, and keeping our wits sharp.

    1. Melma – I think that the influx of ballots by mail took advantage both of rules that were not clear and were used as an excuse to ignore rules.

  10. I have been reading Paul Johnson’s excellent book, “Modern Times” and he explained how much of what has been written about Harding was many years later revealed to be a Leftist media smear campaign. I also learned even the “Teapot Dome Scandal” turned out to be a blessing in disguise during WWII because it resulted in a lot of strategic oil pipelines as well as oil reserves in Hawaii. So I for one am dismayed that anyone would lump Harding in with Bill Clinton (the Jethro Bodine of politics) or Kennedy. Lastly, as Dennis Prager has often pointed out, “Truth is not a virtue on the Left”. . .

    1. Ty, we have the Paul Johnson book, but clearly, I haven’t read it yet. My understanding was that there was even a woman paid off to stay quiet before his election. If I misjudged him, I stand corrected.

  11. Instead of Crossword puzzles, I practice my Spanish… that way when I’m stumped I learn something when I look it up… I too am stunned at the mainstreaming of cheating… I try not to do it much because I’m not good at it and then I have to lie to cover, and then matters get worse… usually it was easier to do the Ben Franklin method: Speak the truth in a moderate tone of voice; or stay with a crowd if I was tempted to do something bad… Hercules Poirot: Small sins can cast long shadows…

  12. Comedian Steve Allen said that he got so hungry he resorted to begging, stealing and eating out of a garbage can. But as far as a cross word puzzle, I think your group needs to make the same rules for all and as long as everyone follows them and is having a good time the point of the game is not only made but perhaps enhanced. When I was young I mostly kept the rules mostly to look good in others eyes. (I thought others always were thinking about me). Now today I do what is the right thing to do for myself and mostly because I wish to improve my relationship with God as I serve my fellow man. This is what I have learned from Rabbi Lapin and Susan.

    1. Lee, that’s such an interesting point about doing the right thing because it’s right vs. doing it because of what others will say. The latter does have its purpose – the good side of peer pressure.

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