Service of Cheating III

September 10th, 2012

Categories: Cheating, Education


Cheating is as old as the hills and will outlast us all.  I’ve written about variations countless times, from a high school student caught taking tests for others to grade inflation and from ghost writers of college and graduate student papers to winning at all costs. In fact the first in the “cheating series” on this blog was about an epidemic in America’s schools as reported a few years ago by Primetime on ABC.

The Pollyanna in me has a hard time understanding why the smartest among us feel they need to cheat. It doesn’t compute.

I first read about the 125 Harvard students in question on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend in The New York Times in “Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted.” A few days later I read “Harvard Students Fighting Allegations of Cheating on Exam,” in Bloomberg News.

Over the same Labor Day weekend The New York Post ran a story, “History Lesson in how to cheat: Stuy kids have done it for years.” Stuy refers to Stuyvesant High School, one of the best public schools in NYC and among the hardest to get into.

studentscollaboratingBack to Harvard, John Lauerman wrote in Bloomberg News: “About 20 students and graduates have gone to the media to tell their side of the story, saying skipping classes, sharing notes and collaborating on tests were all tacitly condoned by the professor and teaching fellows of the course being probed, students who took the class said.” Students told Laureman there were 279 freshmen through seniors originally enrolled in the class.

congress2Ironically, Introduction to Congress is the title of the course.

Lauerman reported that Harvard undergraduate dean Jay Harris said punishment for cheating on exams [which in my day was almost always automatic expulsion] range from being “asked to withdraw for two semesters, or” [a student] “may receive a warning or be put on probation.” In the earlier New York Times story I read that some graduates could lose their degrees. Laureman wrote that Harris “wouldn’t say whether the board would consider taking away graduates’ degrees.”

The backstory:

The instructor was Matthew Platt, an assistant professor. Quoting a senior Laurerman wrote: “Platt said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year and I’ll give out 120 A’s this year.” The senior told him he was taking difficult courses and needed to get A’s.

In both the Times and in the Bloomberg article, Platt was said to have told the class that he didn’t mind if they skipped class. Laureman wrote, “Students frequently shared lecture notes, which probably contributed to the similarities in people’s answers, those who took the course said. ‘That’s how people understood this course worked,’ the senior said.

“Platt’s exam instructions say that ‘students may not discuss the exam with others — this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.’ That contradicts the way the course was actually conducted, students said.”

I’d like to point out that of those registered in the class, over 150 aren’t involved in allegations of cheating.

I don’t need to learn the outcome of the university’s administrative board to observe that whether or not they are reprimanded, the 125 students are cheating themselves. Why not get everything you can out of college? Isn’t that the point? Do I assume correctly that if you got into a place like Harvard or Stuyvesant High School you’re an exceptional student, so why cheat? What do you think about all this?


13 Responses to “Service of Cheating III”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Some people enjoy cheating just to see what they can get away with. In the case of the bright student, the answers are probably too easy, he’s bored and is looking for something to do. Others steal. I knew of a group of well heeled young men in their early 20s who made a second career out of seeing how many pricey jackets in Brooks Brothers they could acquire without paying. In short, such activities are not necessarily a lapse in virtue, just an idea of fun.

    One can moralize all one wants, it won’t help. Perhaps embarrassing publicity along with fines, possibly jail time and certain loss of reputation will reform a few miscreants – but don’t count on it. Some are just born that way. That’s what they do.

  2. Rhona Said:

    I am not sure it is primarily the students at the high powered schools who cheat. They certainly get the headlines. And it is surely the pressure that gets put on them to succeed beyond what they believe they can do that drives them to it. But cheating has become so, well, everyday, that I don’t think many people think twice about it. I worry about the segue to lying, which seems to be becoming pervasive in the presentations of our public figures. I hope we can raise all kinds of distress flags and exhibit our disgust for those who choose to lie. Cheating, lying, immoral acts of all kinds need to be called out and put down, along with those who promulgate such actions.

  3. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    I think that survival in such schools is so fraught that even the most “honest” students find themselves willing to do almost anything to excel—in prep school, so they have a better chance at entering an Ivy League college; as college students, the competition may be even tougher and kids (perhaps pushed by their parents) similarly become willing to do anything to succeed.

    My daughter went to a private school in New York, and from 7th grade onward, there was a tangible thrust toward college qualification…to such an extent that, by senior year, Amy and her schoolmates were pretty anxious, pretty much on edge. None of them cheated, as far as I know, but all were compelled to become competitive. Such competition has only intensified in the past 20 years or so…to the point where I’m sure a great many kids feel a punishing need to succeed at any cost, even if that means cheating. I don’t excuse it, but I do understand why it’s been occurring.

  4. PW Said:

    People who have the most materially, are often the kleptomaniacs (Bess Myerson, Wynona Rider). I suspect these students wouldn’t have to cheat (though maybe their standards for themselves are impossibly high), but maybe too, they can never get enough love = clothes or have high enough grades = love?

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If you can get into Stuyvesant or Harvard….you don’t NEED to cheat or take silly gut courses.

  6. PW Said:

    Agreed but I think all this cheating is “because everyone does it” but also because there is HUGE pressure put on these guys to “succeed” and they do things they know they shouldn’t do in the name of achieving that success.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Cheating might be cool and give a few a buzz, but 125 students? I dunno. I think they were looking for an easy course, based on the assistant professor’s assurance that they didn’t have to kill themselves and if you read the articles, he added that he gave over 100 A’s in the past. The last thing most of the 125 wanted to do was to learn or be courageous. They wanted a good grade for doing little.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    All I can respond to you is HERE HERE!!!!!

    For goodness sakes, these students, whether or not they are on scholarship, are so blessed to have access not only to some of the best instruction, but to have 98 percent bright colleagues in class.

    To shrug off this kind of behavior makes me angry–which is why I brought up the subject. And if this is permitted, what next, as you note.

    It leads to flim-flammy conversation on the part of politicians and citizens who don’t learn to listen because they haven’t had to! They’ve cheated! When have any pols responded to a question? Asked, “what will you do about health care? the war? unemployment?” The answers are generally, “Not what my opponent recommends,” but it is rarely if ever followed up by specifics. While not lying it’s not telling the truth.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    So what happens in the workplace? We all need to support ourselves and there are fewer and fewer jobs and clients. Will this kind of behavior be OK when someone gets your daughter’s job because somehow they cheated or she wouldn’t lie to save hers? No way!

    I went to a very competitive school just like your daughter. Of course people cheated–I’m sure some did because it’s nothing new–but the brilliant ones didn’t need to and the dumber ones were too dumb so….maybe it is a sickness with some or a fun challenge as Lucrezia posited.

    It should not be an acceptable option and for over 100 in the class, it wasn’t.

  10. Simon Carr Said:

    One of the things that I have noticed about your blog is how often you touch on subjects about which attitudes have changed as the demographic mix and cultural makeup of the country changes. I find it fascinating to trace these changes and how and why they have occurred. This is one of them.

    As my parents were living abroad during the late 1940s, they sent me back to New England to attend a boys’ boarding school founded by two puritan brothers during the Revolution. It, unlike many of its peers, was far better known for its democratic principles and academic standards than for catering to the wealthy or privileged. The school’s rules — there were just four of them, including no bearing of fire arms and no dishonesty — took up a paragraph in the students’ handbook and were clear and unequivocal, as was what happened to you if you were caught breaking them. You were immediately expelled, put on a train and sent home. There was no discussion, no forgiveness, no returning, and your parents got none of the tuition they had paid back either. You knew this, and it was an effective deterrent to crime. Out of a student body of 1,000, only three students were expelled my first year. There was no announcement of their expulsion and no explanation, but the boys knew as boys will.

    I loved the place and still am grateful to it for standing by me during my difficult adolescent years, but even during my short time there, the place changed. A new headmaster came in. More rules were added, allowances were made, and more tolerance for rule breakers introduced into the system, such as suspensions instead of expulsions. Crime, of course, rose, as did the time the administration spent administering it, and the students talking about it. The school was modernizing to meet modern community standards. It has gone on doing so ever since. Of course, being a traditionalist, I didn’t, and still don’t approve.

    Not too long ago, I came across a couple of acquaintances, a decade or so younger than I, who were fellow alumni, and sentimentally sought to commiserate with them about how wonderful it had been when we were at school. To my astonishment, they both, who had been successes in school and had matriculated at Yale and Harvard, respectfully, told me how unhappy their school years had been. Each had felt that they had been far too pressured to excel. They both applauded the gentler, less rigid style of the modern institution. Attitudes had changed in a short ten years. I strongly suspect that they would have approved of Harvard’s fuzzy chastisement of its cheating undergraduates.

    In my personal experience, in almost every part of the world, except some select parts of North Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, the only efficient way to get anything done is to bribe. Cheating is more the norm than the exception. In the spirit of egalitarianism, why should that institution of higher learning, that bastion of advanced thinking and liberalism, Harvard University, be any different than anyone else? The case of Stuyvesant High School seems not dissimilar.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t equate bribing with cheating if it’s the way things are done. I lived in a country where a bribe was part of the cost of living. Because it was expected, it wasn’t considered cheating.

    I have friends who are great at bargaining which also was the norm where I lived. I have always been terrible at it. But bargaining isn’t cheating either.

    I worked like a dog in a competitive environment as a child and am grateful for that foundation as I continue to do so and find it normal. I’m harder on myself than others are. I can’t speak for those 10 years your junior, but I would guess that the difference between them and me is that I was not pressured to succeed at home, only to do my best. In doing so, I often surprised everyone—especially me!

    I wonder if an A achieved by cheating feels as good as a well-deserved A.

  12. CC Said:

    For some reason I cannot get onto your website or open this link. I’ve tested and it’s not my browser.

    Even without reading this, I have a comment.

    Certainly part of it is pressure and part of it is laziness. But what struck me in reading the comments of some of the Harvard students has struck me in reading about the proliferation of plagiarism among students and young professionals. And it came home when a young person who is close to me and just starting her freshman year asked me to read the first college essay she wrote and critique (and even feel free to edit) it.

    She was stunned when I told her that when I was teaching literature at the college level I would have failed a student who had a professional writer go over an assignment in advance of handing it in. It had not occurred to her that this was a situation where availing herself of a unique external resource was unacceptable.

    It doesn’t occur to these Gen Yers, who are accustomed to doing everything as teams, that a personal assignment shouldn’t be done as a team. And it doesn’t occur to them – because they grew up grabbing things off the Net – that pasting someone else’s words into your assignment without proper attribution is plagiarism. If it was acceptable in any context at any time, they extrapolate that it is acceptable, period.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The other day, GoDaddy was on the fritz and it affected my blog–I couldn’t get on it either and later learned that this happened to millions worldwide. I hope today’s trouble is unrelated, apologize for wasting your time and am grateful you persevered and reached me another way.

    I think you hit on something and wish that you were still teaching [in your spare time in the middle of the night] because you would make your expectations supremely clear.

    There are people who arrive at an office to work in the accounting department, for example, and suddenly they are assigned to pick up the phone when the receptionist is at lunch. Without training, they might answer “YES?” No salutation, just a voice that implies, “I’m busy, don’t bother me, what is it??” I’ve worked at a place like this. Such a person needs training and guidance as do the Gen Yers you mention.

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