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Harvard, Cheating, and the Humanities
The academy is all atwitter about the unfolding cheating scandal at Harvard. The NYT website put up two headlines: one has students denying that they cheated (Harvard Students Deny Ever Having Cheated); a second seems to be a plea in the alternative* (Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted). However, the two headlines link to the same story.
We live in sloppy Times.
An alumnus/faculty member at another institution writes in:
Hard not to notice that Harvard’s current cheating scandal highlights what should be seen as a preceding-and-permissive scandal, an “index” scandal: an “Intro-to-Congress” Government Department course enrolling 279 undergraduates.
279 kids in a class. A grader — or surely a team of TAs — discovering the cheating. The cheating itself obviously routinized — among HALF the class, no less. The routinization reliably suggesting “career” cheating, reaching back into high-school and fooling the Admissions Office.
It is AGAINST this image of phony students in a phony undergraduate program that Dartmouth should position itself. Not TOWARD this image, as our university-emulators are breathlessly insisting.
Are some classes at Dartmouth also too big? Yes, some are. Do some students at Dartmouth also cheat? Yes, no doubt. Does our Admissions Office make mistakes? Oh, yes. But minimizing the correlates and putative causes of cynical behavior — in students and in the institution itself — should be renewed as a mission, not abandoned as noncompetitive “in the 21st century” (as cliche masters are always anxious to add, as if groundlings like us can’t tell time). Being (or becoming again or even becoming for the very first time) a real college, a one-of-a-kind college, the best-of-all colleges — that’s a goal to grasp, not to set aside.
Not that any reasoning can stand up to conformity’s steam roller.
Two additional points come to mind on my end:
In an academic context, Humanities is the division that focuses on ethics; it does so infinitely more than the Social Sciences and the Sciences (though the folks in Economics will teach you that a thorough cost/benefit analysis of cheating would almost always lead to the conclusion that it a bad choice). We neglect the Humanities at out peril for this and other reasons.
How much cheating goes on at Dartmouth? That’s hard to measure. In my time and today, students talk about paper/test banks at fraternities, where the brothers supposedly benefit from the work of yesterday’s students. (Memo to faculty: change your tests each year!) And yes, Virginia, there is open, improper collaboration among students in some exams. I’ve spoken to students who have witnessed it first-hand.
Perhaps Harvard’s experience will serve as a wake-up call.
* Pleading in the alternative: “a) I didn’t steal the car; b) If I am found to have done so, it was all smashed up before I stole it; c) If it wasn’t all smashed up before I stole it, someone else smashed it up, not me.” And so on. It is permissible in the United States, but not in all foreign jurisdictions.
Addendum: Paragraphs like this one in the NYT story cited above make one wonder if a Harvard diploma is anything more than a certificate that one is smart and worked hard in high school (or has parents with pull):
In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.
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