Gov 1310: an Adult Learner’s Experience with the Harvard Cheating Scandal

Among the great experiences of the year just past for me was the opportunity to learn about the US Congress through the Harvard Extension School from Professor Matthew B. Platt in the class Gov 1310.

… Yes that class.

Nearly one year since the first session of Gov 1310 and headlines about the class continue in publications ranging from the Harvard Crimson to the Huffington Post, to the Wall Street Journal. Headlines aside, for me those lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays from January to May, the assignments, sections and exams are one of my personal highlights of 2012.

I say this for reasons that include that this was the first opportunity since beginning study at the Harvard Extension School in 1990, earning a degree in 1993 and taking the occasional course since that time that I was able to experience the Harvard of the daytime.

Although most of my participation in Gov 1310 was from a distance, watching recordings of the lectures at night or on weekends from my home or while on business travel over various hotel’s internet connections, it was the chance to be part of the daytime experience: the same lectures, the same faculty, the same teaching fellows and the same assignments as those experienced by Harvard day students. It was great. I once took vacation time to visit the campus, attend a live lecture and soak in the full experience.

News of the cheating at first tarnished the experience for me only slightly. After all, I earned my grade and the four credits and as is said in basketball, “no harm, no foul” to me. However, over time as I think back disappointed grows. Given the sentiment of this age some may roll their eyes at the language I use in the next clause of this sentence, however, I must ask: how could anyone given the opportunity to be a full time student at Harvard dishonor that privilege? Who could miss such an opportunity that is granted to so few? Deserving people all over this planet covet the chance to attend Harvard and for any number of reasons are excluded.

That being said, I have a great deal of compassion for what these young people must be going through. They made a youthful mistake. None could have anticipated the way that this has become so public and so painful to so many. The fact that this has become so public means that rather than the appropriate private tears of those impacted by the University’s sanctions and the pain that rolls across their families, they are being subject to negative attention that far outweighs the implications of their actions. That is unfair. I do not wish to add to that pain. I wish and hope that those involved will be able to learn, to heal and to move past this difficult period.

I write only to say that there are other sides to this story. One story, my story, is of a relationship with Harvard made possible because of the actions of University President A. Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943) who created the Harvard Extension School. Thanks to his foresight back in 1909 it is possible for me and many others to benefit from this great institution.

My personal opportunity came about because years back an employer felt that I was worth the investment and paid my tuition. Achieving the credits to graduate did not come easy. In the time before today’s distance education options, travel to campus was required. On class evenings for most of three years in the early 1990s, I would work my full shift at an office in Boston then catch a Red Line train to the campus to participate in classes. After several hours of lectures I’d get to my home just before midnight. I’d have something to eat and catch a few winks before racing to get on the train back to Boston for another day’s work. Weekends were reserved for reading and homework.

Evenings at the Extension School while working full time was not a new experience for me. After financial setbacks and seeing my parents struggle to keep our family afloat through the late 1970s, passing up college, I took the bird in the hand of a full time paycheck. It was only after meeting the woman who would eventually become my wife that I realized to achieve our dreams, I needed more education. For most of ten years I attended college classes at night, on weekends, through winter, spring, summer and fall until graduation with a Bachelor of Science from Salem State College in 1987. The work was worth it. After graduation I escaped my dead-end job in a warehouse when I earned a promotion into management. Harvard remained but a dream that would have to wait for another several years.

There’s nothing special about my story. In my academic and professional career I have met many people in similar situations. Bright and talented these are people who are motivated and have the skills to achieve in life. The difference between these people and the lucky few who complete the archetypical college experience is often little more than circumstance. It is to them that the cheating scandal strikes most offensive. It is for them, in part that I write these words.

It is also for Professor Platt that I write. Perhaps the decision to come forward came easily. He seems to me a man to whom the ideals imputed in Harvard’s motto, “Veritas,” resonate. Although often obscured by an ironic wit about of today’s political realities and the lack of participation by his relentlessly passive in class audience, his idealistic soul shines through during his lectures.

As a person, few could blame Professor Platt if he took pause about his difficult decision to come forward about the cheating. He is a young intellectual with a young family and a bright future; difficult contemplation would only be natural before he made the decision to speak up. I am sure that the time since has often not been easy. The implications run deep, powerful constituencies have been affected and the ripples are still being felt. Doing the right thing took great courage.

There remains much innuendo and outright accusations. People insinuate that somehow there was something wrong with how the class was conducted. Comments abound about declining student ratings on the Q Guide, students being allowed to work on a mutual “study guide” causing confusion, teaching fellows varying grading styles and other complaints. To me, having been a part of the class, being one of the many who did the work, who earned our grades, these are little but opaque excuses.

The class was challenging, but fair. It was what I expected from a Harvard class. Professor Platt was clear in continually restating the University’s policies on collaboration. He prefaced the release of each exam by reiterating the rules. The distance education videotapes of the lecture attest to this fact. Anyone who was not aware was not paying attention.

A large part of the shame of the scandal is what those students themselves lost. The content of this class is extremely important at this time in the history of our country. These are subjects that every citizen participating in the American political processes should understand. Professor Platt was articulate in explaining the reasons for and the historical origins of why the US Congress seems no longer able to deal with the challenges facing the modern American republic.

There is word now that the course may not take place in the upcoming semester. If true, this is additional shame. More than just a few credits toward some other goal, Gov 1310 provides the thoughtful person with a set of tools to see through today’s vacuous headlines, to understand the true issues and to make better decisions as a citizen of the United States. The class provides the opportunity for a level of understanding that too few involved in today’s political discourse achieve. In this era of Congressional gridlock, “Fiscal Cliff” discussions and a growing public dissatisfaction with the processes of American government, conducting this class is critically important.

Perhaps some of the bright young people who took this work seriously in the Spring Semester of 2012 will carry on the great tradition of the University and become part of the solution to these important problems for our country. If not them, perhaps some future group will be inspired by Professor Platt when he once again stands behind the podium to deliver this important content.


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