Harvard, Grades, Cheating, and the Cannon Revolt of 1910

This morning, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, published new details about Harvard’s investigation of more than 100 undergraduates accused of cheating in an introductory government course.

The newspaper obtained a copy of a letter from the professor of the course, Matthew Platt, to the school’s disciplinary body:

On a bonus question, “all the answers use the same (incorrect) reading of the course material in arguments that are identically structured,” Platt wrote.

He wrote that one of his teaching fellows originally detected suspicious similarities on that question, which read, “Describe two developments in the history of Congress that ostensibly gave individual MCs [members of Congress] in the House greater freedom and/or control but ultimately centralized power in the hands of party leadership.”

Several students answered that question with the same two “somewhat obscure” responses—the Cannon Revolt of 1910 and longtime 19th century Congressman Henry Clay, Platt wrote.

Until today, I had wanted to avoid drawing premature conclusions about the school’s accusations, but now it seems that it’s time to add this incident to the disturbingly long list of highly public plagiarism cases this summer.

Most recently, Time and CNN briefly suspended Fareed Zakaria for copying from a piece in The New Yorker by Jill Lepore. In July, Jonah Lehrer left The New Yorker following accusations that he’d fabricated quotes and committed other ethical violations. At the beginning of the summer, The Wall Street Journal dismissed my classmate Liane Membis for fabricating quotes and sources. (As a student, Membis also contributed to The New Journal, of which I was an editor.)

Then there’s the presidential campaign, in which factual leniency has become standard operating procedure (as Gov. Mitt Romney reminded us again last night). It seems like lying is the new thing that all the cool kids are doing these days.

I don’t know why Platt’s students cheated, and I don’t want to defend them, but I’d like to point out that grade inflation might make students more likely to cheat (to answer the question my colleague Daniel Luzer asked a year ago). If employers and graduate schools know that B’s are below average, some students will be terrified of them, and they’ll resort to questionable behavior to protect their GPAs.

If there were more diversity in GPA among students, they would be more willing to accept grades that accurately reflected their levels of engagement with the curricula. They wouldn’t try to cheat, because their professor’s standards on short-answer and essay tests like the final for “Introduction to Congress” would be high enough that copying would not earn a good mark even if it went undetected. The only way to earn an A would be through a semester of hard work and original thinking.

Ross Douthat, reflecting several years ago on his time at Harvard, observes that about half of the Harvard College class of 2001 graduated with an A or an A-minus average (The national average isn’t much lower). Douthat describes what he experienced as a culture of lax academic standards:

It doesn’t help that Harvard students are creatively lazy, gifted at working smarter rather than harder. Most of my classmates were studious primarily in our avoidance of academic work, and brilliant largely in our maneuverings to achieve a maximal GPA in return for minimal effort. It was easy to see the classroom as just another r&ecaute;sumé-padding opportunity, a place to collect the grade (and recommendation) necessary to get to the next station in life. If that grade could be obtained while reading a tenth of the books on the syllabus, so much the better.

Douthat may be too hard on his classmates—I don’t know—though in the recent cheating scandal, the students failed even when they were trying to get out of work.

Copying answers on an exam is a serious lapse. Harvard needs to punish that kind of transgression promptly in order to protect the value of the degrees earned by honest students. Yet if administrators are serious about protecting academic integrity, they might also consider other, less blunt policy instruments than formal discipline. The scandal is an opportunity to think about how colleges assess students, and to consider how grades affect the way students and faculty approach learning.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund