Cheaters Never Win, but They Do Go To Harvard

The big news coming out of Harvard this week is that their incoming group of first year students is more interested in cheating than having sex. What’s the point of cheating on homework if you don’t use the extra free-time doing something fun? Youth is wasted on the young.

Those of us who have spent time in higher ed are in no way surprised that our current generation of students plays fast and loose with their classroom responsibilities. We’ve known for years that more and more students arrive in our hallowed halls willing to cheat.

We might, in our older and grumpier moments, simply blame technology. The influx of computers and the internet has certainly made cutting and pasting much easier. Students have access to vast amounts of information. Chances are there isn’t an algebra problem known to man (and woman) that google hasn’t already considered.

While some critics of higher ed are more than willing to point their judgmental fingers at colleges and professors, arguing that universities are prone to fibbing to get higher rankings and our students are simply modeling our behavior, the Harvard survey shows the students are arriving on campus already willing to cheat.

But it’s also worth offering up a slight defense of our incoming class of ne’er do wells. We should acknowledge that cheaters (and their pants) have been around as long as liars (and their burning pants). In other words, the 21st century doesn’t hold a monopoly on unethical behavior.

Certainly, the data shows that cheating in universities today is far worse than it was in the 1940s.  Over the last 60 years or so, the number of self-reported acts of dishonesty have increased.  Of course, comparing the campus climate in 2013 to the 1940s is about as useful as comparing driving habits from the same time periods. I’m going to go out on a limb and claim the goals, purpose, and pressures at the pre-World War II, pre-Korea, pre-Vietnam university were a tad bit different than they might be today.

I definitely don’t want to excuse dishonesty, but I do want us (as educators, parents, and citizens) to recognize that as the social pressure to “get an education” increases, we see a corresponding willingness to cheat. We should also note that the pressure to succeed at the university is brought to bear not just by universities and parents. Employers are increasingly requiring college degrees for positions that, quite frankly, not need college degrees.

Why, we might, ask do students cheat? Because the cost of failure has become so high. Scores on standardized tests, too often, have become gateways to a better (or worse) world. Simply put, culturally we have turned education into a task one must complete that may or may not be useful. The degree has become more important than the journey itself. We have equated not completing college to failure, even though the majority of Americans don’t have college degrees and they are quite often successful.

When I first started teaching English Composition, our first essay assignment was always about the purpose of higher education. Is our goal, I asked, to provide training and skills or are we here to engage in the epistemological journey of self-discovery? Increasingly, my students resent classes that don’t “apply” to their major, but who can blame them. We bombard them with learning objectives and focus on assessments and accountability. We have reduced the number of hours required to get a degree from 130 to 120 and we focus on pathways to completion and competency-based education. They are, in fact, modeling our cultural values regarding education.

Yet, we also know that thinking critically isn’t measured by filling in the blanks. Classical education concerns itself with hows and whys. Answers are often fluid. Truth, meaning, and even language are fields of play where complexity reigns. Not knowing is an important part of understanding.

But none of those things are practical. Or fast. Or measurable. Or multiple choice.

And too often, culturally, not important. Instead, we spend our money and our time on standardized tests that pretend to measure a student’s intellectual ability. We tie that score, the bubbles filled in correctly, to Ivory Tower access and we reward students who master the practical. All you have to do is eliminate 75% of the choices and your future awaits.

I don’t intend to hold students blameless. My own classes include strict academic honesty policies, but I’ve also come to realize I must spend time teaching academic integrity and reminding students that learning at an institution of higher learning involves more than simply demonstrating a specific skill. We can, and must, teach both the hows and the whys, but we must also remind our students the why (or the why not) is the more important of the two.

But it’s an uphill battle. After all, those kids who cheated did get into Harvard.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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