CS50 as Religious Experience

This week is Holy Week, and truly it is a time of miracles: Christ raised from the dead, the lapsed returned to the pews, and Harvard professors contemplating the possibility of grace in the face of human depravity.

Our reading today comes from Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I”, the wildly popular class taught by David J. Malan ’99. The course has a turbulent history with academic dishonesty—one that includes a full tenth of the class, or over 60 students, being investigated by the Honor Council in 2017—though perhaps charitably it also is more rigorous than many courses about checking for such transgressions.

In response, Malan announced earlier this month that he plans to adopt a policy, termed the “near occasion of sin” rule, where students who say they feel they have no recourse but to cheat can instead receive penalty-free or penalty-reduced extensions on their assignments.

It’s sad that this policy seems to have baked into it a resignation to the inevitability of cheating, though I suppose that that rule—named by its creator at Princeton after a piece of Catholic dogma—has got its heart in the right place. Malan says that academic dishonesty is “almost always the result of poor, late-night decisions with stress levels high and deadlines looming,” a conclusion that seems plausible.

Indeed, elsewhere in his blog post, Malan indicates that the “regret clause,” another CS50-specific policy that violators who self-report within a certain time frame can sidestep the traditional Harvard College academic dishonesty disciplinary process, has enabled the course to identify students struggling with external health or family challenges and provide access to professional counseling.


Nevertheless, both these policies suggest a certain helplessness in the face of undergrads’ behavior. Students, CS50 seems to believe, have an intrinsic proclivity to cheat. Left without emergency exits and amnesty clauses, they cannot help but turn to it.

Approaches like the regret clause and the “near occasion of sin” rule are designed to give undergraduates a way out, either just before or just after the cheating is consummated. In a strange sort of way, they’ve got weirdly Calvinist overtones to their fatality and outlook.

In that sense, the use of “sin” as a euphemism (or dysphemism?) for academic dishonesty seems actually quite apt. It is, as the Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition says of the phrase “occasions of sin,” a result of “the frailty common to humanity.”

The claim is a somewhat depressing one to hear. The traditional line had always been, as Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris told CS50 last fall, that students faced with a choice between a worse grade and academic dishonesty must be taught to always choose the former.

Malan now suggests that that choice never existed. Students won’t elect to get a worse grade, he says, they’ll just cheat. The only way to reduce the number of technical instances of plagiarism, therefore, is to make extensions permanently available without penalty. A willingness to cheat is now understood as a natural, if not necessarily accepted, part of Harvard students’ nature.

It is sad that the bar for expectations of us is so low, for it also implies a certain moral exculpability about academic dishonesty. CS50’s policies reflect a belief that we’d all cheat given the right circumstances. It’s a condition to be managed, not eradicated.

It’s ironic that this policy is labeled the “occasion of sin,” since Catholic theology makes clear that—while in agreement about the underlying impulse towards evil—the phrase represents the individual moral imperative to resist that temptation. “The same obligation which binds us to refrain from sin requires us to shun its occasion,” the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry says.

It does not seem too far fetched that the same would be asked and expected of students. As the theology suggests, the better road is not always the easier one, but we do have the free will to choose. Even the grace that comes after is not free, and this week in particular, Christians commemorate its high cost. (Celebrants of today, Maundy Thursday, will recall that the night before Jesus was arrested, he also asked, rather unsuccessfully, for an extension.)

Of course, I believe extensions should be granted for students with extenuating circumstances, and it is very good that CS50 course staff have been able to look out for their students’ health outside the classroom when it impacts their academic work.

But beyond those circumstances, academic dishonesty shouldn’t be an excusable offense. Harvard should expect every student to reject it entirely, regardless of the specific conditions of their assignment. (Wonderfully, The Crimson article reporting on the new policy is paired with a photo whose caption reads, “During the first CS50 lecture, David J. Malan ’99 explains the concept of binary.”)

If academic dishonesty is indeed akin to sin—and having taken the Puritanism out of the alma mater, I suppose CS50 was as good a place as any to put it—we ought to be truer to its gravity. To commit it or to abjure it is a personal choice we must each make, as both the phrase “academic dishonesty” and the word “sin” imply.

I’m more optimistic than either Malan or the Catholics: I’m willing to believe Harvard undergrads do not have an intrinsic inclination towards cheating. I hope in the future that courses can treat them that way.

Derek K. Choi ’18, a former president of The Crimson, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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