The Harvard cheating scandal

Collaborate! (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Almost half of the students in Government 1310, “Introduction to Congress,” are being investigated for plagiarizing, or “inappropriately collaborating,” on the course’s open-book, open-note, open-Internet, take-home final exam.

But this isn’t about cheating. It’s about the demise of failure.

The mark of greatness used to be failing greatly.

Just take any Harvard admissions tour, and you’ll hear all about it. Gertrude Stein was taking a philosophy exam, the legend goes, from the philosopher William James. “I’m sorry,” she wrote, “but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.”

“I know just how you feel,” he responded. “A.”

Robert Benchley failed to study maritime law. Posed a question about it, he wrote: “I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fishing problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. Therefore I shall discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”

The stories are legion. From Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, many of its most famous graduates failed to graduate.

Harvard’s lore is, in many ways, the lore of spectacular failure.

This is the stuff of which greatness used to be made: You used to have the idea that you could fail a few times and remain great. These days, accustomed to constant feedback and praise, with the independent confidence in our own abilities of lab rats pounding the lever for cocaine, we’ve lost that. Bright students avoid challenges like the plague. Take a course where you might not succeed, just to learn something? What are you, some sort of moron? If we fail, even once, we’ll become failures. Never mind what the graduation speaker says.

We take courses not because they are interesting but because they are easy. We take courses where the professor makes a point of saying that he had given out 120 A’s the previous year. We take courses with an open-book, open-note, open-Internet, take-home final exam. Open-book, open-note, open-Internet, take-home? That should be impossible to fail. No wonder everyone was so desperate not to.

So we go running to office hours. We scramble to the teaching fellow for help. The idea that you might look at an exam that had a ludicrous question on it that you could not, reasonably, be expected to answer, and that you might just say, “Well, so much for that,” scribble something down, and spend the rest of the exam eating a sandwich — this is foreign. Not foreign. Alien. Ask? Of course you ask. Ask your teaching fellow. Swarm into his office! E-mail the professor! Look so worried in the library that your classmates ask you what the matter is.

This is no spectacular cheating ring. If the New York Times interviews are to be believed, the students involved barely seem to think they’ve done anything wrong. “No one ever specified that this was against the rules!” as the person who fills the activities corridor with greased pigs always says.

After all, the only thing more embarrassing than taking a course where your entire grade is dependent on open-book, open-note, open-Internet, take-home exams is taking a course like that and not getting an A.

So you collaborate.

It’s just collaboration. It’s what happens when you are faced with a difficult question and the idea of doing it badly is more galling than the idea of doing it wrongly.

And is collaboration so wrong? True, the people most eager to collaborate are always the ones who have not done the reading. But naturally. Collaboration exists so that where one person would have to do all the work, four can do a quarter of it. Or, to be more accurate, collaboration exists so that where one person would have to do all the work, one person still does all the work but four can uncomfortably sign their names to his PowerPoint. Collaboration is in these days. It doesn’t help you learn nearly so much as one might hope, but never mind. After the admissions process, during which you are required to beat several other applicants to death with a chair, it comes as a pleasant relief.

And in cases like this, collaboration helps spread the blame around. Surely it was a misunderstanding, not a scheme. If almost 125 people do a thing, it can’t be illegal.

Or can it?

My guess, having been in courses with a “culture of collaboration” before I made it out in 2010, is that no one involved thought what they were doing was wrong, in the same way that nobody driving five miles over the speed limit expects to get pulled over. If you’re just keeping up with traffic, who can fault you?

But the larger objection remains. This would not have happened if anyone had been willing to — heaven forfend — fail at something.

It’s partially grade inflation. It’s partially the idea that you Have Spent Your Whole Life Excelling and This Course Was Supposed To Be Easy, Dang It.

No one was willing to fail. So everyone did.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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