With news that nearly half of the 279 Harvard undergraduates enrolled in an “Introduction to Congress” class have been accused of cheating on the final exam, the university has been immersed in some understandable soul-searching. Blame has been cast far and wide — on everything from today’s entitled youthto the temptations of the take-home final to Harvard’s tendency toward grade inflation.
In the end, culpability will lie with the 125 students in question, who allegedly turned in strikingly similar answers on a take-home test last spring. So far, some have complained that the test instructions — which described the exam as “open-book, open-note, open-Internet etc.” — were misleadingly vague. But the instructions also stated that “students may not discuss the exam with others.” The trouble is that students approached the test with the understanding, it seems, that no one, from their classmates to their professor, took the course as seriously as they should have from the start.
That’s an important component of this cheating scandal, and it speaks to a larger problem with undergraduate education at Harvard and beyond. Government 1310 was a survey course with a reputation for requiring little effort. In an online course evaluation site, one former student wrote that the class required “four hours of work every three weeks. Pretty chill.” Some of last year’s students maintain that Assistant Professor Matthew Platt didn’t seem to mind if people skipped his lectures. And, as with many Harvard courses, graduate teaching assistants took on a heavy share of the instruction.
This is a not-especially-well-kept secret about a brand-name college education: despite its reputation and its $55,000-a-year sticker price, Harvard’s courses aren’t always especially rigorous, its standards of undergraduate instruction aren’t always high, and some of its professors seem to regard their classes — especially entry-level courses — as little more than a distraction from research projects. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of today’s educational marketplace, in which a college education has become a transaction: a means of earning a degree for your resume, rather than a place to explore the life of the mind.
But with college costs rising each year and student debt compounding, families need to consider what they’re paying for. And for universities to justify their soaring costs, they need to offer value beyond a name — at the very least, a sense that a major survey course is more than just an inconvenience on the way to a degree. The students involved in the Gov 1310 scandal should be disciplined, if they cheated. But the faculty needs to take responsibility for a class whose academic standards over the years apparently failed to match the university’s reputation. At the least, the students who didn’t cheat in the class might deserve a partial refund.