Honor Codes – A Culture, Not A Band Aid

Scott Farrell comments:

Cheating in school is a perennial problem. The struggle to get top grades and rise to the head of the class always tends to bring out the question: If you succeed, does it matter how you do it?

Of course, the answer is, “It certainly does.” A doctor, lawyer, journalist, or other professional may have gotten straight A’s on their final exams, but if they don’t know the information necessary to do their jobs, they’re going to fail catastrophically when they are put to the real test. Part of the job of every teacher is setting an example of commitment and integrity for his or her students.

Still, discouraging cheating among students is difficult. This is why some schools institute honor codes that specify, among other things, absolute “zero tolerance” for cheating and dishonesty. Now, as students go back to school, Yale University, one of America’s top Ivy League schools, is considering adopting just such a code in the wake of a scandal that involved widespread cheating and plagiarism among students.

But does tacking up a Ten Commandments of Honest Behavior billboard at the school’s front entrance really do anything to promote honesty? As Yale student and columnist Marrisa Medansky observes, honesty stems from the “culture” of the campus, not from a quick-fix honor code put together by the school’s public relations department over summer vacation. Her article, originally published in the Yale Daily News, provides some interesting thoughts from an “insider’s” perspective about what honor codes can – and can’t – do when it comes to bringing honesty, integrity, and chivalry onto campus.

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There’s a problem with cheating in the Ivy League, and Dartmouth students want to fix it. They’ve proposed an honor code that will obligate students not only to confess to their own academic transgressions but to reveal the dishonestly of others, too.

Their proposal has created a wave of discussion. Princeton students want to implement a similar policy. Brown students are adamantly opposed. And Yalies? They “support the code,” according to the Harvard Crimson — in, mind you, 1950 — citing its appeal to “a Yale man’s morality.”

Sixty-two years later, cheating is still a problem. As you read this, Harvard is investigating some 125 undergraduates implicated in a mass plagiarism ring. Jonah Lehrer, a 2003 Columbia grad, stepped down from his job at the New Yorker over the summer when it was revealed that he had fabricated quotes in a recent book. And here at Yale, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria resigned from his position on the Yale Corporation in the wake of a plagiarism scandal.

America craves stories of smart kids doing dumb things. To them, the Ivy League is a foreign entity: distant, majestic and unknowable. When their kids fail, it is a disappointment, but when those kids fail — those lucky, lucky Ivy League kids — it is Greek tragedy, and the major news media is all too eager to play the chorus.

Academic dishonesty is bad no matter where you choose to pursue your degree. But it could certainly be argued that, given our relative privilege, Yalies have a particular imperative not to do so. We’re lucky to be here; Yale gives us so much. It’s a little presumptuous to bite the hand that feeds.

The recent scandal at Harvard has prompted the Associated Press to ask whether an honor code would help rein in potential plagiarists. Author David Callahan told the AP that when a school like Harvard doesn’t have an honor code, then “someone’s not paying attention.”

“This is a major failure of leadership in higher education,” he mourned.

This mindset is not new; the 1950 Crimson article proves as much. Just last year, Harvard endured a firestorm when it asked freshman to sign a so-called “kindness pledge” encouraging them to “sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” In 2008, News columnist Julia Knight proposed instituting an honor code at Yale to “introduce valuable information and inspire important discussion.”

The idea of an honor code is inherently appealing. After all, everyone likes honor, and code evokes sexy Round Table-era mystique. It is an easy fix — one that sates those critical outsiders reading the New York Times and IvyGate. It makes us look like we’re fixing things. Reputation restored, right?

Not so fast. When it comes to instating an honor code, Harvard and her peer institutions should reject such an impulse.

Universities must take care to avoid top-down approaches to eradicating dishonesty. This, to many university administrations, is counterintuitive. Yet Harvard’s freshman pledge endured mockery due to its authoritarian tinge (be nice or else). When it comes to punishing cheaters, bureaucracy has its place. But deterring them? That’s a shift in culture, not policy.

Schools where honor codes succeed — like Washington and Lee or William and Mary — have policies seeped in tradition. When their students uphold the honor code, they are connecting with the past in a meaningful, visceral way, the same way Yalies feel a tingle of pride when they drink a Mory’s cup or study in Sterling. These honor codes don’t succeed simply by existing; they work thanks to the weight of the past. And when universities heavily market their honor codes to potential applicants, they create some degree of self-selection in the incoming class. Institutional shifts don’t occur overnight; they’re the result of generations of social engineering.

If we really want to address academic dishonesty once and for all, we need to look at its causes, not the Band-Aids that hide them. Address the pressure-cooker culture at Harvard and Yale; address the perception that grades are somehow correlated with moral worth; address the prevalent I’ll-just-do-it-at-the-last-minute attitude. Only after looking at these underlying causes can we seriously consider the implications of an honor code. Maybe there’s a place for an honor code at Yale, but it should come from deliberation and discussion, not reputational anxiety.

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This article by Maria Mendasky originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2012 edition of the Yale Daily News.

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