Harvard‘s announcement last week of an investigation into a case of widespread cheating offered a little thrill of schadenfreude for some: confirmation, perhaps, that a venerable 376-year-old institution, whose motto Veritas means truth in Latin, could be caught up in the same pedestrian crimes and misdemeanors found at less lofty altitudes. According to reports in the Harvard Crimson, more than 100 students in a large undergraduate lecture class are alleged to have lifted material from shared study guides on a final take-home exam.
Moral indignation is an understandable response, and can have a role in all sorts of problems. But focusing on individual character flaws or moral failings obscures both the magnitude and the complexity of the problem of our national crisis of academic dishonesty. Cheating cuts to the very heart of academia, more so than it does other institutions that have faced similar wrongdoing, such as professional sports and the financial industry, because the search for truth is the primary mission of a university. Harvard’s public statement promised appropriate discipline for the wrongdoers and noted that the “vast majority” of students do their own work. Such circumstances – which are dismayingly common on college and high school campuses nationwide – often prompt institutions to re-assert community values in this way. But a broader kind of soul-searching is required.
Students have cheated for as long as there have been schools but, by any measure, academic dishonesty is on the rise. While detection methods and increased vigilance explain some of this increase, most experts believe the actual incidence of all forms of cheating have increased, too. For one thing, the technological ease of mashup culture makes it hard for students to recognize — or care — that they are appropriating the work of others. In fact, according to reporting in the New York Times, some of the Harvard students involved seemed to think that they didn’t really cheat, that there were special circumstances in the class, that the professor changed the rules, and so on.
Our experience at Harvard College, as House Masters of one of Harvard’s twelve undergraduate residential-academic communities, gives us a bird’s eye view of the pressures that can sometimes drive college students to temptation. We’ve observed two types of students who are especially vulnerable…