On August 30, Harvard Dean Jay Harris announced the largest cheating scandal in memory—and possibly the largest ever at the University. Like others connected with Harvard — I have been there for over 50 years — I was shocked but not surprised. Shocked because the number — close to half of the students in a large class — was stunning. Not surprised, because I have been aware of the rise of cheating throughout the country and, with colleagues, have documented an apparent thinning of the ethical muscle of ambitious and privileged young Americans.
In the intervening month, I have come to think of this episode as a play in four acts: two down, two to go. The last will be the most important.
Act I: The Perfect Storm
From all available evidence, a plethora of elements came together. There was the unprofessional and apparently mercurial teacher; the unguided teaching fellows; the course’s reputation as a ‘gut’, especially convenient for students with little interest in the intellectual content; and three prior open book exams which had set precedents for various forms of collaboration. Of course, none of these factors justifies cheating or even collusion; but an episode of this scale was most likely when all these pieces were in place.
Act II: The Toxic Aftermath
I classify the reaction as ‘toxic’ because I have been struck by the apparent failure of any group to assume even partial responsibility. Professors say it could not happen in their classroom, and some call for the elimination of take home exams and/or the institution of proctored final exams. Students say that the atmosphere of the class was so chaotic that the apparent cheating was not ‘really’ cheating. Pundits attack athletes; the ethos of individualism and success at Harvard; the corrupt influence of the wider society, with its crooked politicians, irresponsible bankers, drugged athletes, and even this year’s Commencement speaker who had plagiarized from a Harvard faculty member. Everyone points a finger at the perhaps hapless professor.
Act III: Moment of Truth
We’ve been told that the approximately 125 students will learn their individual fates no later than November. I’d wager that some students will be exonerated. Those who handed in identical examinations or purveyed the same erroneous bits of information will receive severe punishment – but the majority will be reprimanded but not asked to leave for a year. Almost no one will endorse these measures: some (mostly on the outside) will feel that students or the teachers got off too lightly, while others (mostly close to the students) will feel that the punishments were too severe. Parents have already threatened to sue the University, and if there is one thing that you can certainly bet on, the University will do its utmost to keep this matter out of the courts—at whatever cost.
Act IV: Not a Tragedy, but a Comedy
No matter what happens, Harvard’s reputation is not going to be destroyed by this event. Nor should it be! Still, it would be a tragedy if Harvard portrayed this episode as an isolated incident; continued with business as usual; or simply adopted the Band-Aid of a heavily policed examination system.
In dramaturgical terms, a comedy is not primarily a string of jokes; it is a play which typically has a happy ending. In my preferred scenario, Harvard (and other similarly afflicted colleges and universities) would use this episode as a wake-up call.
Over the last decades, while our universities may have been outstanding in certain respects, they have forgotten the two most important obligations of an educational institution.
The first is to place teaching and learning at the center of the school. There can be fun, there can be extra-curricular activities, but those activities should be truly extra. If teachers dedicate themselves to the classroom, if they teach well, if they engage their students directly and vividly, if they can relate their chosen discipline to the concerns of the young and of the wider world, if they set an example of intellectual rigor and excellence, the temptation to cheat would be replaced by a desire to master, as 19th century British cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote, ‘”the best that has been thought and said” and be motivated to add knowledge.
The second obligation is to create and sustain an ethical community. Institutions of higher learning have the privilege of housing our talented young people (with tax-free status) and ushering them into the broader society. To the extent that the society presents unappealing attitudes and destructive behaviors, the university should embody a powerful, even seductive counterexample. The adults with whom the young come into contact should be admirable role models.
In writing these words, I am embarrassed. For one, they sound like a sermon and I am not a minister. They also seem familiar, indeed obvious.
But I am not embarrassed to say that at the elite schools I know well, we (and I include myself) have fallen so short of these ideals that it does not suffice to utter them. In many cases, we will need to go back to the drawing boards if we are even partially to recapture them. Schools like Harvard should consider once unimaginable steps: retaining only scholars who love to teach, reducing the import of or even eliminating grades, offering only intramural athletics, revamping the admissions process, just to mention a few. Should we do so, we will earn the admiration that the rest of the world still directs toward our elite colleges and universities.
With apologies to Shakespeare, life is not a play nor are we simply actors on the stage. But educators at higher institutions across the land do have the ability to write and perform that fourth act in comedic spirit.
Howard Gardner teaches psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and directs the GoodWork Project. Over the past month he has been meeting with students, faculty, and ‘wise elders’ in different venues, to think about what might be done going forward.
LISTEN to Howard Gardner on WBUR’s Radio Boston: