The news that Harvard is investigating more than 100 students on charges of unauthorized collaboration on a take-home exam has, predictably, led many commentators to chime in. No matter who you are, a story like this is likely to trigger one of your hot buttons, whether it’s the declining moral standards of kids these days, the moral core of elite educational institutions, the inherent injustice of top-down rulemaking, or whatever. Not to mention that the course was “Introduction to Congress.”
Much of the commentary has been sensible, and some has even managed to withhold judgment on the underlying “cheating” issue, about which few details are known to the public. Having served on Princeton’s Discipline Committee (which heard all cases of academic fraud except those involving in-class exams), I know how fact-specific these kinds of cases can be. Exactly what did the instructions say? Exactly what did the students do? If they claim to have misunderstood the instructions, was it a reasonable mistake, or did they willfully distort the instructions and avoid asking for clarification? And so on. Depending on the facts, there might not have been any “cheating” at all.
Perhaps the strangest commentary on the Harvard incident was Farhad Manjoo’s piece at Slate, whose argument can be summarized by its title and subhead: “There is no Harvard cheating scandal. The students should be celebrated for collaborating.” He argues that even if the students had clear instructions not to collaborate at all on the exam, and even if they collaborated completely and openly, they should not be punished. Why? Because people collaborate in the real world, and college should be like the real world.
Even leaving aside the fact–and useful lesson–that breaking a rule can get you punished even if the rule is stupid, Manjoo’s argument doesn’t hold water.
It’s true, of course, that collaboration is important, and that schools should be teaching people how to work in groups. I often ask students to work in groups, not only to teach collaboration skills but also because group assignments can be larger and more complex–and hence more realistic–than single-student assignments. But this doesn’t imply that everything in my course needs to be collaborative.
For one thing, people in the most collaborative professions, such as team sports, do in fact train alone sometimes. Basketball is a collaborative game–there is always a team on the court trying to cooperate toward a common goal–but basketball training involves a mix of group and individual activities. Players might practice their shot alone, or lift weights alone, or run alone, to make themselves better contributors to the group. It stands to reason that academic training would be the same, encompassing some mixture of group and individual work.
More to the point, the Harvard work was an exam, and exams are more about evaluation than about training. If the coach wants to evaluate basketball players to decide which ones to choose for the team, at least part of the evaluation will measure their individual skills. Can the player consistently make open three-point shots? How high can the player jump? How far can the player run without getting tired? It won’t do to let the group of players pick one person to do the shooting, another to do the jumping, and a third to do the running.
I don’t know if any Harvard students deserve punishment for breaking the rules. But I do know that if they were clearly instructed not to collaborate on the exam, and they collaborated anyway, it’s fair–and necessary–to punish them.