Don’t blame the Harvard cheaters

Why should we care about some students cheating in a Harvard intro course?

by Trent M. Kays


There are cheaters at Harvard University. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone; however, a scandal of this magnitude at supposedly one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning stings. Close to 75 students will be forced to withdraw after being caught cheating in an Introduction to Congress course. But, Harvard isn’t like other schools. It’s different.

The elite students at Harvard are not being thrown out for cheating; instead, they are being required to take a leave of absence and find full-time employment for six months. This is their punishment. I don’t know how finding a job is punishment, but for the kids at Harvard, it must be. All throughout the country, people are waiting in subzero weather for a chance at employment. Yet, for Harvard, full-time work is a punishment.

The students in question collaborated to correctly answer questions on a take-home exam. These students worked together to attempt an outcome that benefited everyone. They got caught, and now they have to go to work. When I was an undergraduate student, I was a double major in professional and technical writing and history. I did this while working a full-time, 40-hour per week job and commuting up to 50 miles a day from my home to campus to my job. I would leave my house at about 6:30 a.m. and be gone until midnight. I worked on the weekends. I had no breaks.

So, I find it insulting for a university to consider full-time work a punishment. There are people starving and begging for work, while Harvard throws around silly punishments aimed at some students’ ingenuity. Certainly, I wouldn’t say all cheating is ingenuity; however, this incident is about more than simple cheating. It’s about plagiarism and about a society that wants people to work together but then punishes those who do so.

I’ve always found conceptions of plagiarism troublesome. As a writer and a writing teacher, I’ve encountered plagiarism many times, and I always discourage it. I do so because I’m supposed to. Fundamentally, I believe plagiarism to be wrong and an ethical quagmire. In a society where you can be shamed for using your own work or ideas more than once, I find this issue obstructed, like trying to stare through ice blocks.

In higher education, you are told to be original. When you aren’t original, you’re punished or ridiculed. If you can’t be original, then you need to be creative and collaborate. Or, you need to restructure an existing argument or idea so it appears to present new ideas. If you can’t do any of this, you’re denigrated. Honestly, I hold no ill will toward those Harvard cheaters. I guess they did what they felt they had to do. The American ethic often seems to be about doing the least amount of work for the greatest reward. We need only look to Wall Street to understand this ethic.

Most egregious is that instead of asking why there was a test and why these students felt they had to cheat, we simply dismiss it as a great scandal and move on. There’s more at work here. Cheating is symptomatic of far greater problems in higher education. Often, people seem to cheat because they feel they can’t succeed if they don’t or because they’re lazy. I understand the latter, but I always hope for the former. I work from this point of view. I never want to consider my students in an unethical light. It’s hard. But, we should ask ourselves a simple question: Why was a test created in which cheating was so easy? Or, better yet, why was there even a test?

I’ve never been a fan of tests. I once had a French professor tell me that tests only really exist to check what one doesn’t know — not what one does know. That being said, formal tests might be good for some assessment. I’m not sure where this would be good, though. So, why is everyone surprised that a bunch of students collaborated on answers on a take-home exam? Did no one see this coming? It’s not that shocking. What’s shocking is that Harvard would ever consider itself above a base human instinct: to survive at all costs.

Now, some Harvard cheaters will go off and find work for six months to show they can follow directions, and then everything will go back to normal. Ah, the joys of privilege and elitism, no? It’s a wonderful world we live in.

Let’s not forget the great irony in the room either. Some students cheated in a class meant to introduce them to Congress. These students did exactly what many have done to get to Congress: cheated, lied, swindled and worked with others to ensure their survival. We seem to accept it in one of the most important bodies in this country, yet higher education comes down hard on students who did the same. Double standard? Well, of course. It seems as though this is the “American way.”

I don’t support cheating in any case, but we can’t simply ignore the whole host of other issues swirling around this incident of cheating. Privilege wears many masks — none so more than the mask of judgment. We need to examine the context and understand the drive of these Harvard students before we disparage their reputation and “punish” them with employment.

I’d much rather give that punishment to someone struggling to feed his or her family than some hyper-advantaged student who crowdsourced an answer to some test that probably should’ve been administered in class anyway.