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Harvard students are relatively honest. That's sad.

September 06, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • A statue of John Harvard that appears to preside over Harvard Yard is known as the "statue of three lies."
A statue of John Harvard that appears to preside over Harvard Yard is known… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

During the eight-year run of the show “House M.D.” the series mantra was, “Everybody lies.” The corollary to that could well be, “Everybody cheats.” Maybe not everybody, but fairly close.

That’s why I can’t fathom the fuss being made over a Harvard University survey that found 42% of incoming freshmen admitted to having cheated in homework in high school, and 10% admitted to cheating on tests. People, including my colleague Paul Whitefield, conclude they've found the difference between those elite Ivy Leaguers and the rest of us. Aha! They only get there by cheating!

Are we really deluding ourselves into thinking that students elsewhere are more honest?

If the freshmen told the truth in the Harvard survey, the members of this class are pikers in the world of academic cheating, models of ethical behavior.

According to a July fact sheet put out by instructors at Stanford University, 75% to 98% of college students in this nation admit in surveys to having cheated in high school. And they say they cheat because ... everybody does. If they don’t, they say, they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage.

Despite the outrage expressed by school leaders, the fact sheet says, students are seldom caught, and when they are, only mild punishment is meted out. The numbers of self-confessed cheaters have risen dramatically since the 1940s.

No, the Harvard numbers don’t show that the way one gets into Harvard is by cheating. But they do show an extraordinary number of students who plan to go into finance upon graduation: 80%. Not academia, teaching, public service, healing the sick. Of course, after paying all that money for a Harvard degree, they’ll likely need a well-paying job to get out from under their student debt. But then, what does that say about the value our society places on teaching and helping others?


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