On Conning Harvard

My friend and classmate Julie Zauzmer recently wrote a fascinating and extremely well-written book, entitled Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League.  I strongly urge all of my readers to check it out.

As the dust jacket says, “Adam Wheeler’s plan was as audacious as it was illegal: [h]e gained admission to Harvard through fraud. …after he enrolled at Harvard, Wheeler plagiarized his classwork and bilked the university out of thousands of dollars in prizes and grants.” Julie highlights just how astounding Wheeler’s efforts were in their breadth and sophistication; it’s fitting that the back of the book features a blurb from the subject of Catch Me If You Can.

Julie aims mainly at two groups of people: those applying to college and those reading their applications. In the latter case, she seems to hit her mark: it would surely be a good idea for admissions departments to be more careful in their work, especially given the frightening statistics cited about dishonesty in the submission of applications.

Her biggest hope, however, is that by reading her book high school students will be discouraged from emulating Adam Wheeler even in less-noticeable ways. Perhaps some will, but the care with which Julie documents each part of Wheeler’s deception may frustrate her goal. Wheeler’s story will likely seem so incredible and unique (although, alas, it isn’t) that recognizing oneself and one’s actions in him and his may prove difficult.

Two other, related aspects of the book seem to me to require more attention: grading and the state of the humanities. The graduate student assessing Wheeler in one class remarked, “He knew what a graduate-level or professional-level sentence is supposed to sound like. And so what you would have, often, is a somewhat incoherent assembly of 25 really decent sentences.” In this course, Wheeler earned at least an A-. This was the rule, not the exception…in his humanities courses, that is; an introductory course in deductive logic went considerably less well (he earned a D+).

I was most struck, however, by learning who began to unravel Wheeler’s fraud: James Simpson, an English professor I know through a student-faculty committee on which we have both served. Julie mentions (in a slightly different context) his “great care for his students,” which is beyond question, but I think two of his other attributes are more relevant: his thoroughgoing intellectual seriousness and his insistence that the academy rise from its specialized cares and engage with big questions. I cannot help thinking it rather fitting that it took a professor of his outlook to spot fraud, when so many of his other colleagues could not.

It would be grossly unfair to make sweeping generalizations from what is certainly an extreme case. That said, it happened, and some aspects happen with what I fear is alarming frequency. While I have never committed plagiarism, I can think of numerous occasions — all in humanities classes — on which I have gotten very high grades for papers composed in great haste and with little thought. I highly doubt I am alone. Those classes, moreover, generally tended to be taught more poorly, while those in which the grading was most rigorous were also generally those in which I’ve learned the most. While this is correlation and not causation, it’s difficult to avoid the connection.

These are only musings. I plan to say more soon about this problem, with which Harvard, at the very least, should have to grapple more seriously than it seems to have done so thus far.





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