“Honor” sounds quaint to modern ears. When I teach the Declaration of Independence, I find that students often struggle to understand why its signers committed “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to the cause of liberty. Raised to regard health and wealth as the highest goods, they cannot easily imagine why dishonor might be worse than death and ruin.
Despite its anachronistic quality, a growing number of colleges and universities are calling on honor to combat academic dishonesty. On Tuesday, the faculty of Harvard College voted to establish the first honor code in its nearly 400-year history (women’s-only Radcliffe had a separate honor code until it began to be folded into the larger university in the 1950s).
The decision at Harvard marks something of a pattern. Last month, the student council of the arts and sciences division at Columbia University also endorsed an honor code proposal. Both decisions followed highly publicized cheating scandals in which dozens of students were implicated. For modern universities, honor is a means for repairing tarnished reputations, rather than a defense against disgrace in the first place.
So are the recent decisions more than exercises in public relations? Can honor codes help prevent rampant cheating and plagiarism? It depends what “honor code” means.
The traditional definition involves at least three of the following elements: unproctored exams; the requirement that students sign written pledges affirming that assignments are their own work; student participation in judicial bodies; and an expectation that students report violations that they observe. One can find such codes at the service academies, the University of Virginia, and some liberal arts colleges.
Research suggests that traditional honor codes do help promote academic integrity. In a widely cited 2002 study, a group of scholars found that traditional honor codes were “powerful influence in preventing academic dishonesty on college campuses.” Honor codes are particularly effective when they are closely identified with the institution itself. Students at the University of Virginia, for example, take considerable pride in their honor code as part of Jefferson’s legacy. They also work well on small campuses, like Davidson, where students and faculty know each other well.
But these conditions are rare in American higher education. Most students attend bigger institutions with amorphous missions, where they remain anonymous both to instructors and to classmates. Moreover, honor codes are no guarantee of academic honesty. In 2012, 78 cadets at the Air Force Academy were accused of cheating on a math test.
Because Harvard and Columbia are relatively large and lack the esprit de corps that characterizes service academies and historic exceptions such as UVA, their proposals involve what are known as modified honor codes. Unlike like traditional versions, modified codes retain outside oversight of exams and don’t require self-reporting by students. In the simplest versions, modified honor codes involve little more than a written pledge that they have not plagiarized or cheated.
Modified honor codes and honor pledges probably do no harm. They impose no substantial burden on instructors, and may encourage students to reflect periodically on issues of academic honesty. But they’re unlikely to do much good either. The central problem is that they appeal to an ethical principle that has little meaning to students. Whether they intend to obey academic norms or not, students have little conception of what honor is or why it might be valuable.
Some Harvard students have also pointed out that the proposed code does not apply to the faculty. The norms for professors are more ambiguous than those for students. For example, there are no clear standards for identifying sources in lectures. But this exemption indicates that the university doesn’t take honor very seriously.
So there are better ways to promote academic integrity. One is already included in some modified honor codes: giving students a role in adjudicating accusations of cheating and plagiarism. The involvement of students in judicial proceedings encourages them to see academic integrity as their own concern rather than a set of arbitrary rules imposed from above.
The best response to cheating, however, is to make it hard to accomplish in the first place. That’s a task for curriculum and course design rather than for enforcement. Both anecdotes and books such as James Lang’s Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty suggest thatstudents are more likely to cheat in large courses than small ones, on standardized tests than on essays, and on work submitted to anonymous lecturers rather than to instructors they know. Colleges and universities that are serious are academic integrity should encourage these conditions of learning rather than relying on rote assurances.
Put differently, institutions that want to stop cheating shouldn’t abandon liberal arts methods in favor of cheaper and more fashionable alternatives. Small courses where students write a lot and know both their classmates and their instructors don’t eliminate academic dishonesty. But they do make it considerably more difficult–and thus less tempting. Big lectures and online courses, by contrast, offer considerable incentives to cheating. It’s not a coincidence that the scandal at the Air Force Academy involved an online exam.
Colleges that claim to care about honor also shouldn’t abandon the content of the traditional humanities. Asking students to pledge their honor when they arrive as freshmen is senseless. But it might mean more after a few semesters spent reading Homer, Cicero, Montesquieu, or Tocqueville, all of whom present honor as essential to a life worth living.
I asked Ronald Liebowitz, Middlebury’s president, about cheating on campus. He said he was extremely concerned and went on to echo many on campus in questioning the efficacy of the code. “So the whole idea of an honor code is very honorable, quite evidently. But there’s an issue of it being actually implemented. I think there are a lot of reasons, both internal and external to Middlebury, why it’s problematic to assume that such an honor code has a degree of credibility.”
Most honor codes rely on students to report witnessed cheating; Middlebury’s calls them “morally obligated” to do so. But the students who are supposed to be proctoring one another aren’t. In a February student-government survey, 63 percent of students said they would feel neutral about, or not report, witnessed exam cheating. And about three-quarters didn’t object to professors proctoring exams and believed it would thwart cheating.
“You’re under a lot of stress already and you’re expected to keep an eye on suspected cheating — that’s an unfair burden,” Isabella Stallworthy, a pre-med student, said.
Indeed, the failure of peer proctoring is a chronic problem among the 100 or so colleges with honor codes. At Stanford, 45 percent of undergraduates said they would not report cheating in a 2010 survey. At , only 4 of 85 students who witnessed cheating reported it, according to a 2009 Daily Princetonian survey. At Middlebury, enough people have shirked their responsibility that peer proctoring might be dropped altogether from the honor code. In a January meeting of student leaders, professors and administrators, students unanimously suggested that this “dead limb” component of the code be eliminated. “Everyone said that the peer proctoring component is dead, and that we should cut it off for fear of necrosis,” said Rachel Liddell, president of the Student Government Association.
But the honor code is a social contract, meaning all of us are connected to and affected by the actions of our peers. For it to work, there needs to be at least the expectation that students monitor one another — or else the code is nothing more than a convenient way to cheat.
The idea that we shouldn’t have to look out for our peers reflects the apathy that members of our generation feel for one another. The thinking goes, if you cheat, you are only cheating yourself. Many students accept this; what they don’t accept is their responsibility to report those who are not as honest as they are. This individualistic attitude enables cheating because it tolerates cheating. A culture that is tolerant of bad behavior will not only doom students to continued complacency, but ultimately also rationalize more severe acts of deceit.
The real point of an education is to teach us to be critical of ourselves. It requires the freedom to make moral choices that professor-proctored exams deny us. Limiting this freedom means limiting parts of an education with the most human value, because in the real world, there are no proctors. A college doesn’t teach holistically if, as a Middlebury mathematics professor, Steve Abbott, puts it, “we teach you the fundamental theory of calculus, but not integrity.”
Perhaps a draconian approach would put more firepower in our neglected honor code. The code at the University of Virginia — one strike and you’re expelled — has real teeth. But this kind of policy punishes, rather than teaches, with an expulsion penalty so severe it might discourage witnesses from coming forward. It’s a system designed to purge an institution of cheaters rather than to change or enlighten them. The fact that a former convicted violator at Middlebury now sits on its judicial board reminds us that learning from our mistakes is, after all, why we’re here.
Peer proctoring is stronger in schools like Hamilton College, where a small gesture has a great effect. Its honor code mandates that if you see cheating, you tap your pencil on your desk to warn the cheater and communicate to the room that, right now, we are all being cheated.
At Haverford College, punishments for those who violate the honor code emphasize community. One student who had been found guilty sent a campuswide apology email, a punishment that is a mix of shame, reflection and painful confrontation with one’s own bad decision. That email reminded students that one person’s dishonesty violates the entire community. Haverford also publishes abstracts of academic trials, using pseudonyms, to raise dialogue. Talking about the honor code illuminates our understanding of why we must hold ourselves to serious standards.
At Middlebury, we are losing sight of that. Even President Liebowitz says that if exams are proctored, it wouldn’t be a big loss. “Frankly, I don’t know if we’d change all that much,” he said. “To me, on the positive side, it might make faculty more confident about the work they’re assigning.” He added, however, that “it might take away from the imagination one has about the college and about life at the college, that we operate within an honor code.”
Ms. Liddell shares a similar sentiment: “The honor code is a nice idea and we don’t really need it.” So I asked her, “Isn’t that the opposite of what you tell people when you work as a tour guide — isn’t the honor code a critical sell?” She paused. “I do tell that to tours. But what is reality if not stories we tell ourselves? Stories about how the honor code means something, stories about the value of education that got you to Middlebury — all of that are just stories. It’s all important, but none of that has to be true or real.”
There is something disturbing and melancholic about these conversations. How can we stand to witness a broken honor code and not see ourselves in it? How is it that everyone — our peers, our professors, even our college president — can say that an honor code makes no difference? The honor code is a model of a world I wish to live in: one of honesty, personal responsibility, learning for the right reason, choosing right in a moment of temptation. These are the very deepest and most literal things we ask a school to teach us. If all this dies, what else can survive?Continue reading the main story