In a survey published Thursday in the Harvard Crimson, 42 percent of incoming freshmen admitted to having cheated on a homework assignment in high school and 10 percent admitted to cheating on an exam. (The real numbers are likely higher: Can we really count on all cheaters to be honest about their dishonesty?) With this data coming on the heels of last year’s cheating scandal, in which dozens of students were caught plagiarizing on a take-home exam, Harvard is starting to look lackluster in the ethics department—and the national press has gleefully taken notice. “Harvard’s incoming freshman class is full of cheaters,” cried Slate's headline (for a post by Harvard alumnus Matthew Yglesias). “Can’t wait for one of them to become president,” wrote Paul Whitefield of the LA Times. “Not so smart without the answers, are they?” gloated the Washington Times.
Because Harvard is Harvard, where more than 35,000 applicants vied for just 1,664 spots in this year’s freshman class, it’s hardly surprising that everyone is piling on. But it would be foolish to believe that Harvard students, with their exceptional GPAs or life stories, are also exceptional in their propensity for cheating. High school students of all calibers cheat—and a few Harvard graduates might be to blame.
In 1999, four Harvard graduates founded an online dating service called The Spark. The founders soon realized they could better monetize the student traffic to their site by leveraging their credibility as formerly successful students. By 2001, they had hired 200 Harvard students and graduates to write study guides; that same year, they were acquired by Barnes & Noble, and SparkNotes.com was born.
SparkNotes publishes free chapter-by-chapter summaries and reasonably intelligent analyses of hundreds of books, including all the classics taught in high school English. Reliable stats are hard to come by, but one survey, conducted by the Vacaville Reporter in Solano County, California, found that 60.3 percent of anonymously polled AP English students had consulted SparkNotes alongside the reading, with 18 percent saying they relied on SparkNotes alone.
Though no one would admit it on the record, all the high school graduates I polled—all friends and acquaintances who, understandably, asked to remain anonymous—said they had used SparkNotes in high school, either in addition to or instead of reading the text.
“I never read a single book in high school,” confessed one college graduate. “SparkNotes was just faster. I was very busy in high school.”
Students expressed a special debt to SparkNotes’ “No Fear Shakespeare” series, which juxtaposes the original Shakespeare with line-by-line translations in modern English.
“I used it all the time, especially for Shakespeare,” said another college grad, who majored in English.
My high school blocked SparkNotes' website on school computers, but that doesn't do much to deter students, who can access the site on smartphones, tablets, or at home. In fact, students’ usage of the site is so hard to regulate that some high school teachers have given up entirely; one student I spoke to recalled her teacher assigning the SparkNotes version of Hamlet.
"It is futile to attempt to forbid students to use the site,” a high school English teacher told Massachusetts's Sun Chronicle last year.
SparkNotes itself denies its role as a cheating aid. “We’re here to help you learn, not to help you cheat,” the site claims. “Sometimes you don't understand your teacher, your textbooks make no sense, and you have to read sixteen chapters by tomorrow. SparkNotes is a resource you can turn to when you’re confuzzled.”
Confuzzled students should turn to resources besides the Internet—like the real live resource at the front of the classroom. But SparkNotes makes it harder for teachers to do their job: when half the class is using SparkNotes, they have no way of gauging whether students comprehend the text or are simply repeating someone else's interpretation. Of course, there’s a difference between students who consult SparkNotes’ summaries to fill in gaps in their reading or double-check their understanding of the text (this is how most of my friends said they had used SparkNotes) and those who try to pass off SparkNotes’ analyses as their own ideas. (Not that the level of analysis offered on SparkNotes is getting anyone into Harvard—if you needed someone to tell you that Holden Caulfield has trouble connecting with people, you probably never had much of a chance.)
But even students who use SparkNotes only as a backup risk becoming critically lazy. The whole point of studying English literature is to learn how to grapple with texts that are not always straightforward; just knowing that easy-to-read study guides are freely available could be enough to tempt students away from the hard work of textual analysis. And when teachers turn a blind eye to their students’ rampant use of SparkNotes, it only emboldens that laziness. Whether using SparkNotes is cheating in the traditional sense is almost beside the point: Its users are cheating themselves more than anything.
Alice Robb is an intern at The New Republic. Follow her @AliceLRobb.