As Harvard Considers an Honor Code, Parents Should Ask a Few Questions

Could such an honor code change a culture of cheating? And where does such a culture come from in the first place?

Last week, Harvard’s academic integrity committee proposed that the school institute an honor code in which students promise to conduct themselves ethically in their academic assignments. This comes after the cheating scandal sent an estimated 70 students packing for copying answers on a take-home exam for a government course. But could such an honor code change a culture of cheating? And, where does such a culture come from in the first place?

Cheating at Harvard is nothing new. In the spring of 1951, Ted Kennedy famously sent another student to take his Spanish exam, got caught, and was kicked out of the college for two years. As Rebecca Harrington, a novelist and Harvard alum, pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times: “Periodic scandals have exposed dishonesty that would have made the institution’s Puritan and Congregationalist forebears weep.”

What’s changed is the pervasiveness of the practice. For too many high school and college students, cheating is simply in the air that students breathe. We live in a culture where an estimated 80 and 95 percent of high-school students admit to engaging in some form of cheating. And technology makes it easier to do so, opening up avenues for sharing and copying information via the Internet and cell phones. According to Challenge Success, a group started by Madeline Levine (who writes about the affluenza affecting certain groups of American teens in books like Teach Your Children Well): One study found that 52 percent of high school students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet.

But where does this drive to cheat come from in the first place? Is it really Harvard’s fault that students show up thinking it’s OK to pass someone else’s work off as their own? Or is Harvard simply dealing with the fruits of an achievement culture gone haywire, where students, fueled by high parental ambitions and anxieties, are so hellbent on getting the A, they’ll do whatever it takes?

There’s no question our kids are growing up in a winner-take-all culture. Pediatricians report higher numbers of stress fractures in pediatric and adolescent athletes; these are basically overuse injuries resulting from starting kids in sports earlier and having them play more often than in the past.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Madeline Levine points to other bleak statistics:  25 percent of kids with symptoms of anxiety or depression; 10 percent of kids who are functionally impaired and basically can’t get out of bed; 31 percent of college students being alcohol abusers (not users); increasing numbers of kids using Adderall—which is potentially dangerous without doctors’ oversight; and 17 percent of kids self-mutilating at the Ivy Leagues.

In his book, Making Good: How Young People Cope With Moral Dilemmas at Work, Harvard professor Howard Gardner, discusses the “hollowness at the core” of so many elite college students who view success, not morality, as the most important life goal. In an op-ed for The Washington Post when Harvard’s cheating scandal first broke out, Gardner wrote:

Over and over again, students told us that they admired good work and wanted to be good workers. But they also told us they wanted — ardently — to be successful. They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested. And so, they told us in effect, “Let us cut corners now and one day, when we have achieved fame and fortune, we’ll be good workers and set a good example.” A classic case of the ends justify the means.

Levine sees the cause early in childhood. Her solution?

People feel isolated, competitive with each other, and separated from people traditionally considered “wise” — be they rabbis or priests or aunts who live upstairs. Life is changing at a pace that we can barely keep up with; it’s a perfect storm, and parents are desperate for some good advice. This is not rocket science. This is just going back to basic child development and kind of laying that out.

While Harvard’s plan for an honor code is a good one, it may not go far enough to change what has become part of our culture. The problem starts much earlier, on the playgrounds across the country, where parents are often sizing up the developmental milestones of the other kids and subtly or not-so-subtly competing. Perhaps we should start the honor code in the sandbox, by teaching our kids that winning at all costs really isn’t winning at all.