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MIT Students, in the Grand Tradition, Cheat to Win

Column by Matthew H. Hersch

Opinion Editor

In the game of politics, fortunes can shift like donkey hair on a windy day. In a presidential campaign that I thought was beyond hope, I have gained new momentum -- a sign that my bid for the Democratic nomination may be within reach. Just as Jerry Brown, capitalizing on the flake vote, has jumped ahead in the polls, I have found grand new constituencies -- all mesmerized by the substance of my spew. In Illinois, the dead came out by the thousands to show their support, as did hundreds of unregistered voters, children under four, and the criminally insane.

But my political efforts must now take a backseat to a more pressing campus issue -- cheating. Covert nastiness may have its place in the world of espionage, but massive academic dishonesty has no place at MIT or any other institution of learning.

Cheating, on exams, and more often on problem sets, has become as enshrined a tradition at MIT as hacking and bad teaching.

Students will be quick to say that professors are always vague when it comes to the amount of collaboration allowed on graded work. To a small extent they are right. Some cheating is accidental, as when students think they are doing legitimate group work when in fact they are violating a professor's rules on collaboration. This cheating, though, constitutes a very small part of the whole. Most cheaters are fully aware that what they are doing is immoral and forbidden. They just really don't care.

I have yet to be in a class at MIT in which students did not cheat with the willing approval of their classmates. In most, doing problem sets becomes some kind of bizarre Marxist ritual, with correct sets becoming the property of the masses. A couple of smart, generous, and nerdy communists always donate their problem sets to the communal pool of knowledge, and in the hours before sets are due, you can always find students crammed into MIT reading rooms passing around the answers and copying ferociously.

The cheaters I have spoken with (who number in the thousands) are fully aware of what they are doing. They cheat because they won't be caught, because they have a genetic disposition to do so, but mainly because they see no other way to finish their work and still have time to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom occasionally. Problem sets are hard -- damn hard -- and most students would rather get a dishonest A than an honest C.

And cheating doesn't materialize from the void. MIT teaches students that in the end, only their position on the class curve matters. Actual learning is secondary -- the student with the highest score wins. MIT teaches students to be resourceful, and while I applaud this concept, many students view this philosophy as an open invitation to do anything necessary to win.

All of this cheating might be tolerable if everyone did it. Unfortunately, or fortunately, rather, many people don't. In courses that emphasize problem sets, Cheating Quotients, or CQs, artificially inflate the curve, hurting honest students who are willing to bear responsibility for their inadequacies. But sadly, to students who just don't take tests well, problem sets are an invaluable way for them to show their abilities on a level playing field with the rest of their peers. Artificially skewed problem set grades, though, destroy these students' last chance of doing well at MIT. Cheaters care little about issues of abstract morality, though, and they are also quite willing to grind fellow students into the dirt to succeed.

In all fairness, though, few MIT students are consciously malicious -- they are just narrow-minded, and, in the grand nerd tradition, they lack an awareness of the ethical ramifications of their actions.

Faculty and administration responses to the cheating problem have been inept at worst and naive at best. Professors establish tutorial hours for their classes, but these more often become just another excuse for instructors to teach badly; I have heard professors utter the dreaded words "This will be explained to you better in tutorial" countless times. Besides, as long as cheating is easier than getting extra help, time-conscious MIT students will cheat.

The administration's answer to the cheating crisis is an Institute honor code. This effort is primarily a public relations gambit to deflect media criticism that MIT is the nesting ground of cheating geeks, which it is. But honor codes won't scare students -- they don't care about morality in the first place, and already know that they can be expelled if they are caught. Besides, if you ask a liar whether he's telling the truth, he'll probably lie, and to a veteran cheater, agreeing to an honor code is just another chance to cheat.

Another brilliant plan to stem cheating is the establishment of some kind of confidential mechanism by which students can turn their neighbors in. Hopefully, no one would do so -- if they did, this hotline would raise all sorts of legal questions concerning the rights of the accused to face their accusers. A cheating hotline, at its worst, would become a great way to get your enemies into trouble -- at best, it would become a college version of America's Most Wanted. It might stop a few big-time cheaters, but would do nothing to deter future dishonesty. And if students were legally obligated to turn in cheaters as part of an honor code, MIT would deteriorate even further into a paranoid culture.

In the end, students will cheat as long as it is in their interest to do so. Only when students feel that cheating is unnecessary, or that risks outweigh benefits, will they stop copying problem sets. In the meantime, professors could teach better and make their problem sets easier, and treat homework for exactly what it is -- a weekly take-home test. Instructors wouldn't allow group collaboration on in-class exams, and they shouldn't allow it on problem sets. This change wouldn't end cheating, but it would help to more clearly define unacceptable behavior. Graders, in turn, should pay more attention to evidence of fraud.

None of this will probably happen, though. Problem sets will get harder as part of a misguided effort to offset the effects of cheating, and as they get harder cheating will become even more prevalent. As instructors phase out problem sets all together, honest students will continue to get squeezed. In the end, they will either adopt dishonest tactics, continue getting Cs, or leave MIT all together.