A Matter of Trust

HAVE YOU EVER cheated on an exam at Harvard? Be honest.

I'll bet you haven't.

We hear over and over to the point of nausea how proud Harvard is of the collection of students it assembles. We're the most talented, the most diverse, the most intelligent group in the country. But does Harvard trust us? Apparently not.

Every year, Harvard shells out thousands of dollars to hire an army of proctors to watch us take tests. In September, dozens of upperclassmen are signed on to monitor first-year placement tests. In January and May, hordes of graduate students, extension school students and non-affiliates invade the Yard to watch all 6500 undergrads sweat through final exams.

Sure, these proctors try to make themselves useful. They hand out extra blue books and will fetch you a pencil. They tell you when to put your pencils down. They pass out the blank exams and collect the blue books we have filled with wisdom.

But even Harvard knows we're old enough to bring a watch and a spare pencil. And professors and TF's are perfectly capable of dealing with the nitty-gritty pre-exam administrative details proctors now handle--after all, they do it during midterms.

Let's face it. The proctors are there to stop us from cheating.

IN 1985, according to a study on honor codes commissioned by then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence, Harvard spent $30,000 hiring proctors for final exams alone. That's a lot of money, especially when you consider that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is so financially strapped that it started cutting down Quad shuttlebus service last year.

One suspects this money could be better spent. Exam proctors specialize in pacing the aisles, looking over shoulders and peering at faces. All they do is heighten tension, which tends to be already considerable around exam time.

I took one computer science exam where a proctor watched me write an entire program. Writing in Pascal under deadline is difficult enough without an audience of University spies. I considered throttling the fellow.

I don't like being told to put my books to the side of the room and to stop talking. I don't like to be told I can't go to the bathroom for the first 90 minutes of a test. (I usually have to go after seeing the first question on my physics exams.) But I'm not bothered as much by the silly rules as I am by Harvard's total lack of faith in its academic superstars.

AN ACADEMIC COMMUNITY should be based on trust.

That may sound like impractical idealism. But many of the most competitive institutions in the country--including Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford--have honor codes that formally prohibit proctored exams.

That doesn't mean Harvard should have an honor code. At Princeton, the mandatory student pledge to report cheaters is unpopular and apparently causes more trouble than it is worth. Chad Muir, the chair of Princeton's student honor committee, says that out of the twenty of so cases that are reported each year, only one or two result in a conclusion of guilt.

Spence's 1985 study made no definitive conclusions about honor codes but pointed out that Harvard students would resent signing a pledge or being forced to report cheaters. The study also stated that we are generally too apathetic toward student-run institutions like the Undergraduate Council to respect any student court that might be created to judge cases of academic fraud.

But Harvard does not need an official honor code in order to stop proctoring examinations. I have always understood that we are expected to behave honorably at all times. Forcing us to sign pledges smacking of McCarthyite loyalty oaths would be no better than watching over us directly.

IT IS NO SECRET that Harvard students are competitive. And although it is fashionable to say that what we learn is more important, grades do matter. Good grades can mean high-paying jobs, scholarships, prizes and admission to the best grad schools. But would leaving us to ourselves initiate a whirlwind of cheating? I think not.

First of all cheating on the type of test we take is simply not that helpful. Smuggling in a cheat sheet or peeking at a neighbor's paper just doesn't help that much on essay questions in the humanities, where you are graded on the ability to quickly string together an argument from a semester's worth of reading and lectures. In many science exams, professors allow you to bring in a page of notes, but I have never found that too helpful. You have to be able to apply the formulas to the problems, a skill that can only be gained by months of problem set drudgery.

Secondly, most Harvard students are too chicken to cheat. We're not willing to jeopardize our Harvard diploma just to raise that B+ to an A-, especially when we know that in every class lurks a few curve-protectors who would gladly rat out a cheater, honor code or no.

Of course, any class, at any school, no matter what the safeguards, will have some cheaters. The guys at Salomon Brothers who bought too many bonds probably swapped answers in business school take-homes. This type eventually gets nailed somewhere down the line.

But I believe most of us are basically honest people. If we are expected to hold respected and trustworthy positions when we graduate, we should be held to the same standards now. Judging by the scandals that daily fill the front page, learning to resist the temptation of breaking the rules may be as an important a lesson as anything we learn in class.

William H. Bachman '92, former photo chair of the Crimson, would not be averse to installing hidden video cameras in exam rooms.