The cheating of the chosen

By Razib Khan | August 31, 2012 11:44 am

Update: Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted.

Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated on a Final Exam:

Officials said that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class were under investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board and that if they were found to have cheated, they could be suspended for a year. The students have been notified that they are suspected and will be called to give their accounts in investigative hearings.

“This is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude,” said Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education.

Administrators would not reveal the name of the class or even the department, saying that they wanted to protect the identities of the accused students. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported that it was a government class, Introduction to Congress, which had 279 students, and that it was taught by Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor.

Anyone have opinions on this? I know plenty of readers are in the local area in various capacities. My working assumption is that these kids will get off with a slap on the wrist. The meritocracy does not eat its own young. With such widespread cheating in this course this not a matter of intellectual incompetents, but very smart kids who simply wanted to push their advantages on the margin. This is the university that was sending half its graduates to investment banks a few years ago, so what’s new?

Seeing the workings of the hyper-elite probably turn the average person in two directions. If they lean Right, it’s guns & gold. If they lean Left, some sort of Red revolutionary urge. There’s a reason history goes in cycles….

  • miko

    Only surprise is that it was voluntarily (maybe?) made public. A few of them will get a year off.

  • Dan H

    Class was “Introduction to Congress”…

    I say give the cheaters all A’s! They are totally immersed in the subject!

  • Finch

    > This is the university that was sending half its graduates to investment banks a few years
    > ago, so what’s new?

    The class was “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.”

  • Jim Johnson

    Have you read this article , Razib? I recently ran across it, and found it a fascinating window into the world of the ivy league.

  • candid_observer

    I gather that the cheating amounted to various degrees of collaborative efforts on a take-home exam which was not supposed to be worked on collaboratively.

    I wonder how anyone employing such an exam would ever expect that some significant cheating wouldn’t take place. Could one be more naive?

    If you really want to prevent cheating, make it hard to cheat. Don’t deliberately put your wallet on a park bench and then express outrage that someone made off with it.

  • Charles Nydorf

    Academic success is not correlated with ethical standards.

  • AG

    When you have the best in the world competing against each other, you will seek out any means you can. Olympic games.

  • ryan

    I’m an alum, from quite a while ago. Back then, I didn’t experience much cheating in the humanities or social sciences. Heard about some pretty cutthroat stuff in the sciences.

    One thing is that the article says they’re investigating. The evidence is unspecified similarities in answers. Long before any investigation had been announced, one student actually mentioned his (or her) own “collaboration” in a note to the Q Guide (a student course-rating publication) in the course of complaining about the professor. Along with a dozen or more students, he had gone to a TA to say that with just hours before the take-home exam was due, they really couldn’t even comprehend what one question worth 20% of the exam was asking. The TA explained to them what the professor intended in the question. That collaboration would have counted as breaking the ground rules set by the prof. Yet it seems pretty understandable. It’s possible that some other group of students equally befuddled not by the course, but by the professor’s writing skills, also got together, not to write an answer, but to figure out what the question was. If that happened, and they misinterpreted what he was asking, their independent answers still would have shown ‘similarities’ that provoked the investigation. For some reason, the Ad Board has not yet charged anyone with a violation.

    So I think it’s worth delaying judgment on what this may say about our elites till we know what happened.

  • AG

    I only experienced one cheating event in the graduate school when we took chemistry test. The last question needs to resolve two chemical reaction going on at the same time. Proffessor asked students to consolidate two reactions into one equation. It is really a pure math question. A lot of students did talk to each other at end and they had the exactly the same math conducting steps to the final equation. The proffessor thought this really odd when every one had exactly same steps. Since I was the only one using totally different methods from others, I was aked by proffessor about any witness of cheating. He said he could only trust me because of my diffrent method. I told him I had no idea to protect my fellow students.

    Did we cheat? Yes, we did. But no one interested in my method and the situation saved my ass. Altruistic students really got screwed. Every one was asked to retake test except me.

  • DK

    I am not defending the students but – blame professor. Only lazy ass would give a take home exam on which it is possible to cheat.

  • skid

    The entire school is a cheat. Until 2001, 90% of Harvard graduates graduated with honors.

  • bob sykes

    The students are merely following the sordid examples of their teachers. Harvard’s faculty is infamous for the large number of its star faculty who are proven plagiarists and cheats, Tribe, Goodwin, Warren to name a few of the more public ones. Martin Luther King’s PhD advisor passed MLK’s dissertation even though he knew the MLK had plagiarized another on his students. Etc, etc, etc.

  • Laura Wilk

    This is the reason why higher education is changing. The goal is to get the information. As a parent, I would be questioning what I was paying for. I would also be furious if my son or daughter was cheating. I would rather fail on my own merits than win by cheating!

  • Justin Loe

    It’s endemic to the society. Harvard is unexceptional in that regard:

    “Cheaters have higher GPAs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a poll conducted at Fordham University noted a significant gap between the GPAs of cheating students and their honest counterparts. Cheaters, on average, boast a 3.41 average. Non-cheaters average at 2.85. ”


    Essentially, cheating works, as it does on Wall Street.

  • daveinboca

    The kids who get caught will probably get just a slap on the wrist—-Columbia U.’s School of Journalism last year had a cheating scandal on an open book exam on ethics! No follow-up news because all journalists lie, cheat and confabulate [stretch the truth] anyway. And besides, who has any ethics nowadays.

    O tempora! O mores!

  • Mark Peifer

    “Martin Luther King’s PhD advisor passed MLK’s dissertation even though he knew the MLK had plagiarized another on his students.”

    Facts are important–I don’t have any idea whether this plagiarism allegation is accurate (a quick Google search suggests yes) but MLK got his doctorate from BU ≠ Harvard

  • malclave

    Cheating in an “Introduction to Congress” course?

    Maybe they thought it was a lab, and wanted to show how much they learned.

  • apetra

    if you can’t cram for such a course in one long weekend, and pass the exam, what are you doing at harvard?

  • Daniel

    The assumption that a remarkable similarity in answers over a large group of students indicates cheating particularly if the answer is incorrect, is not as generally valid as it used to be.
    Nowadays this generation of students naturally goes to wikipedia for guidance in learning about any particular subject. Thus it would not be surprising if perhaps half the students in the course gave answers based upon what they read in wikipedia.
    Unfortunately wikipedia entries are in some cases tendentious and even downright wrong. If that was the case here, the reported results could have been entirely guiltless.
    Of course if the the wording used was the same for many students it is obvious that they either collaborated or plagiarized from a common source.
    I would expect small groups of students to discuss exam questions among themselves, and even to work together on the exam, because that is the way students are. I cannot believe however that there was large scale collaboration in a course barring a complete demoralization of the student body.

  • Laocoon

    The author said ” The meritocracy does not eat its own young”. Based on years of interacting with Harvard students (I declined to apply), I can assure you that it is a plain aristocracy, not at all a meritocracy. Certainly, there are some extremely smart kids in Harvard. Just as there are some extremely smart kids in Shawnee, Oklahoma (hometown of Brad Pitt): there are smart and stupid people everywhere. In my little technical school, half the kids were on scholarships and 100% were there on merit, especially the ones who had educated themselves all alone in a backwoods library. But at Harvard, most were there because of family connections: the very definition of an aristocracy! Of course, they are smart enough to let some of the most talented commoners in: it blows off steam, provide a focus for hope, and even allows a little new blood.
    So please: do not confuse the aristocracy’s desire to get good credentials and social connections for its young with a true meritocracy.

  • Tblakely

    “if you can’t cram for such a course in one long weekend, and pass the exam, what are you doing at harvard?”

    Getting drunk and fornicating.

    If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.

  • Gene

    When you look at the average SAT scores of persons admitted to Harvard it’s hard to believe “most were there because of family connections.” This isn’t to say they didn’t have smart connected parents. Only that the applicants had the academic prerequisites to get into Harvard.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    I recommend revealing their names … fifty years from now. We have the start of an experiment to test whether cheaters actually do get ahead but will have to avoid interfering with it to get results.

  • Aloysiusmiller
  • Laocoon

    No one would ever claim that the kids at Harvard are stupid; I’m just claiming that they are not there because of any meritocracy. I’m sure that a lot of medieval aristocrat kids worked hard and were excellent horsemen and sword fighters, and that those who did poorly suffered as a consequence. The best aristocrats would have ranked very high on those skills, if tested.

    But they were still part of an aristocracy, and they did not get into that aristocracy through merit.

  • Marty

    I remember back in 2008 there was a meme going around college campuses about how Obama’s degrees from Columbia and Harvard were signs of superior something, and denigrating McCain as a grad of only the US Naval Academy. I took exception and said that all things being equal, if all I knew about 2 candidates was one was an Annapolis grad and the other had degrees from Ivies, I would go for the Annapolis grad in a minute. The Ivy degrees really only tell me that the person played the game well enough to get in. Once you’re in, you’re as good as graduated. Whereas, a degree from a service academy actually tells me something about intelligence, work ethic, leadership skills, honesty, and the ability to master a substantial body of knowledge. All of which the Ivy grad COULD have, but the degree does not tell me anything in and of itself.

    Oh, the flak I caught!!! But, I was right.

  • Nathan

    I’m a physics teacher, and try to stay vigilant about cheating. A lot of students lack compunctions. From their perspective, and, I suspect, that of their families, the purpose of school is to get a good GPA, any way they can. They believe their status in life depends more on their credentials than their abilities, and the sad part is that they’re increasingly right.

    More insidious than the student cheating, though, is the fact that the system we use to dole out economic status amounts to cheating on a grand scale. I am always forcing my students to close their SAT books for a moment and actually learn how to do something, but with the younger generation it’s taken for granted that a glistening resume is worth more than a sweaty brow. And again, they’re increasingly right. People land plum jobs by having good GPAs instead of by having creativity or ideas.

    There’s been a sad drift away from educating, toward credentialing. It’s almost like a pyramid scheme; you pay all that money to a university for their imprimatur, and you’ll get a high paying job, not because you’ll do better at it than someone else, but simply for the sheepskin. Later, everyone wants the sheepskin because people like you have high-paying jobs, so they pay gobs of money to the university.

    Like a lot of the ideas our intelligentsia have hatched over the years, this is neat, clever, and unwise. The trouble with it is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Abilities, not credentials, have real productive value. When people get rich, but do not produce anything valuable to others, they’re stealing the vitality from society. Disconnecting ability from reward will eventually exhaust the free-market system. But this evil is so abstract that many people cannot feel it. They just think if they get the credential, they’ll get a lot of money, and nobody will be hurt, so they cheat. Ironically, if they had paid more attention in math class they’d be more likely to understand that nothing you do to get money you didn’t really earn can be harmless to others. We’ll all pay the price in the long haul. But that subject isn’t going to be on the SATs.

    I agree with the author that it’s no surprise this university graduates so many investment bankers. Inflating the price of education and the perceived value of credentials, and riding ahead of the wave as long as possible before it crashes, is not that far removed from what the Fed does to dollars. The theory of money bouncing around college campuses these days is that it is only valuable because everyone thinks it’s valuable–in other words, the economy is nothing more than a gigantic daily leap of faith. Your money doesn’t represent your labor, it represents the grocier’s gullibility. Similarly, a degree is valuable because everyone thinks it’s valuable. You get your job, not because you can do it well, but because the HR guys face less personal risk if they hire from a school whose degrees everyone agrees are valuable.

    Dollars and degrees used to be tied to things of concrete, practical worth. But now, what is the world built upon? Why, it’s turtles all the way down.

  • Robert

    The cheaters were responding to the incentives they’re surrounded with. For a much deeper look at what we’re growing in these places, see Angelo Codevilla’s piece at:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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