You have probably heard that a teaching assistant grading final exams in a large Harvard class noticed suspicious similarities among the responses. That assistant notified authorities, and now a full-fledged investigation is underway—scrutinized by public attention. As someone who has studied college cheating and plagiarism, I find this case, like so many before and yet to come, provocative. Here are some of the things I wish to say about it.
At my department’s semi-annual retreat, we had another round of discussion about Friday classes. There are good reasons to have them and good reasons to avoid them. Each reason reveals a different, and compelling interest, on the part of various constituencies. But there is no way to adjudicate them, because they stem from fundamentally different goals.
Observe how kids learn to throw balls, or to jump rope, or to play chords on the guitar, or to speak a new language if they move to a new place.
All of it happens with others, in activities that involve what we could call the social mind-body.
And compare that to school.
My heart filled with tenderness for all the parents standing with their kids at bus stops, all the new backpacks carefully placed on tiny, bony shoulders, all the new shoes saved until this morning...all the world starting over, fresh and filled with all the possibilities imaginable, at least this one day a year.
She is the eager girl always raising her hand, always with an answer, always following the rules. A know-it-all, a pleaser, she is the kind of student most other kids can’t stand; she makes them all look bad. And most teachers like her because she does everything she is supposed to do, and then some. Teachers don’t have to cajole and plead and threaten; she does all the work, and she does it with joy.
I opened the class thinking that I would get students to design the assignments and evaluations themselves. I began with a discussion of what grades mean. They watched me suspiciously. What does she want? They assumed it was a trap. Then I required a page-long self-assessment. It asked them to spell out their goals and to discuss how they had and had not met them. It asked them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their paper, in terms of both content and form, and to explain this. And, finally, I asked them to grade themselves.
How High School Prepared You, Our Best Student, for the Wrong Things in College, and How You Can Change Course
Think about high school, if you dare: Every minute scheduled, someone telling you what to do, even having to ask permission to use the bathroom. Every night there were scheduled events, homework, tasks to complete. Why? To get into college, if you were one of the students on track to compete to get into a selective school. For years, your focus was on ferreting out the secret desires of your teachers, and slyly guessing which activities would make you stand out more than your peers. Always with an eye outward, you did what you’re told. Or else!
And now here you are, at long last, at the college of your dreams—or at least one you’ll convince yourself is close enough. The Best Years of Your Life await, right?
For most of the twentieth century, students were revolutionaries. New ideas originated with them, or at least intellectuals spread their ideas to students, who took to the streets. In China this happened in 1919, in 1966, in 1989. In much of the world this happened in 1968.
In 2011 it began to happen in the US, with the many Occupy movements.
Expect more action.
In commencement season, we should acknowledge that college has many meanings and purposes, and sometimes we should listen to what those experiencing it tell us. For them, it is mostly about the people who have created their daily world.
And that’s not, mostly, us.
Susan D. Blum
Who doesn't think there is something wrong with education? Anthropology has a lot to offer when we think about how to raise up our young--in often unexpected ways! Join me as my thinking about higher education unfolds.
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