Tracy Grant
Tracy Grant
Momspeak Columnist

Harvard freshmen who admitted cheating on homework did nothing wrong

The “Today” show tease on a recent morning caught my attention. It went something like this: “Stunning new findings about widespread cheating among high school students.”

I am a mother of high school students, not to mention a parenting columnist always on the prowl for column fodder, so this made my ears perk up.

Tracy Grant

Writes Momspeak, a column on raising teenagers and other parenting issues, and edits KidsPost.

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It turns out that the Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper at that most venerable of universities, had surveyed incoming freshmen and discovered that “42 percent admit to cheating on a homework assignment or a problem set.”

Apparently, that’s supposed to be a shocking number.

“Some of Harvard’s newest members are already guilty of academic dishonesty,” NBC News reported on its Web site.

“Well, that’s one way to get into an Ivy League school,” was the lead on a Los Angeles Times blog post about the survey.

“Cheaters never win — but they get into Harvard!” was the New York Post’s take on it.

Let me be really clear here: I’m not advocating cheating, but I do find the idea of cheating on a homework assignment to be an oxymoron.

Sure, if you purely copied the answers from a buddy because you forgot to do the assignment, that’s not good. And if you do it too often, you’re not going to do well on the test, you’re not going to wind up with a 4.0 and you’re not going to get into Harvard.

So the consequences of cheating on homework seem minimal to me. The question I have is whether the Crimson’s definition of cheating is unrealistically broad.

Say a teacher assigns a paper and a student researches and writes it. And then, the day before the assignment is due, the student, who is not a strong writer, asks a classmate to proofread it and offer suggestions for possible edits. The classmate makes some suggestions, which the original student then goes back and incorporates into his paper.

Did he cheat? According to Harvard’s policy on academic honesty, “All work submitted for credit is expected to be the student’s own work.” By that standard, I believe he did. What he turned in was not completely his own work.

But by asking his classmate, the student displayed maturity on a number of levels:

●self-awareness to know that the subject wasn’t his strength

●willingness to ask for help

●ability to take constructive criticism

●striving to make the work be the best it could be and not settling for just “good enough.”

How is this “cheating” student going to function in a collaborative workplace where the goal is not about the contributions of any individual but the quality of the end result?

I think the answer is “just fine, thank you.”

To me, this kind of “cheating” on homework should be — and in fact, is — encouraged. What, after all, are study groups if not sanctioned cheating? Dividing up work, thinking strategically, and playing to the strengths of the individuals in the group are all things that our kids — whether they’re going to Harvard or not — should be learning.

The Harvard Crimson study also reports that 10 percent of its incoming freshman class said they had cheated on a test or exam. That, to me, is more problematic. Writing answers on your hand as you walk into a trig test really is trying to game the system.

But flip that particular statistic on its head and this is what you get: Ninety percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class say they have never cheated on a test or an exam. I believe that even at Harvard, 90 is still an A.

 
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