Where has the honor gone?

Feb. 8, 2002, midnight | By Joe Howley | 19 years, 4 months ago

Yesterday, I declined to sign a piece of paper declaring my understanding of, support for, and agreement to abide by the Blair administration's new "Honor Code." I did this not because I object to the guidelines of conduct outlined in the Code or the supposed intention of the Code to create an honorable academic environment; rather, I feel that the Code fails to address at all the concept of honor.

Let's ignore for a moment that this document was created by Blair's administration and faculty with no involvement of the student body or their parents. Let's also ignore the coercive environment in which students were and are pressured to sign the aforementioned declaration.

Instead, let's look at the document itself. It begins with an admirable statement of the Blair faculty's commitment to developing "honesty and integrity" in all students. It acknowledges the importance of respect, trust, and fairness to an effective community of learners.

So far, so good.

However, the rest of the document is nearly as distant from these ideas as it could possibly be. What follows this introduction is three pages of sometimes ridiculously specific behavioral guidelines - declarations of things one is not to do. It can basically be summed up as, "Don't steal, don't lie, don't cheat."

Is this academic honor? I have seen all of these commandments before, in outlines of school rules. They are reasonable guidelines, but they are not necessarily connected to the ideas of honor and trust. So, what are they doing here? Where has the honor gone?

The next page is an outline of the punitive measures to be taken against a student accused of an infraction of the preceding rules. The student receives a zero for the assignment in question. The student's parents, administrator, and counselor are informed of the alleged infraction (note that nowhere do these guidelines require the student to be informed). The student may be suspended and even expelled.

Following this is a sham of an appeals process, in which the student is given the option of appealing an "Honor Code" infraction accusation to her/his administrator or the head of the Honor Council (an all-faculty organization). It is the teacher involved who decides whether the case will go before the whole Honor Council. If the case does go before the Council, the student may request someone to accompany them. This person is there "to support the student," but is not allowed to take part in the discussion.

Am I alone in seeing anything wrong with this? A student accused of violating the administration's rules is assumed to be guilty, unless they choose to appeal. If they make such a choice, they may or may not be brought before the Honor Council. If they manage to get that far, they go up - alone - against a host of faculty members.

I'm drifting off topic again. Let's try to ignore the elastic rules, or the procedural lack of student involvement, or the assumption of guilt, or the unbalanced appeals process.

Instead, let's look at the ideas that make up this system. The system outlined in this document is essentially one of behavioral control and punishment. "Do not do this. If you do this, we can do this and this to you," is what the document, as the administration's voice, says.

I can accept that. That is the administration's role in the school environment: to set rules and enforce them.

What I cannot accept is the laughable labeling of this as an "Honor Code." Honor is an internal morality, an integrity of thought and action that, when shared by all members of a community, makes possible universal trust and optimally valuable interaction. Honor is not an external punitive system of behavior control.

I say the following not to brag but for the purpose of example: I have never cheated on a test. I have never copied homework, or allowed someone else to copy homework, or plagiarized work. I do this not merely because if caught, I will be punished (that being the case long before this "Honor Code" was introduced), but because I feel it to be wrong.

We should be good citizens because we want to be, not because we fear punishment.

I am almost offended by the issuing of this document. Not only does it threaten me with punishment if I fail to comply, but it has the audacity to label this behavioral coercion as "honor." It does not address honor; it seems to have no interest in academic integrity and the trust it is based on - trust that is of the utmost importance to an effective community of committed learners.

So, why didn't I sign that sheet yesterday? Let's look at the three elements of the statement I would have been agreeing to.

"Understand." I read the document; I understand it. I could sign for that, no sweat.

"Agree to abide by." Well, I already do. Again, not a problem, signing for that.

"Support." Ah, here we have a problem. I read the "Honor Code" and found it devoid of honor. I found it to be in no way supportive of an academic environment that engenders honor, respect, and trust.

I cannot support this document for what it claims to be. I support its introductory idea - universal morality and trust strengthening the learning community - but as a matter of principle, a matter of morals, I cannot support the document.

So, now what? What do we, as students, do when faced with a hollow and valueless "Honor Code?"

It is our duty as a student body to organize. We can and should create our own Student Honor Council, a Council that would weave students' ideas of academic morality into a meaningful, useful Honor Code. Such a Code, in my vision, would describe academic integrity and its importance to the learning community, describe how such integrity applies to the educational process, and lay out guidelines for how the community deals with members who fail to live up to these standards of honor.

I am inspired in this mainly by the Honor Code of Haverford College, which I came across in my college application process. Haverford's Code is created, maintained, and administered entirely by students. The Council that edits the Code and presides over hearings concerning infractions is composed of involved members of the student community. And, from what I can tell, this works.

I look at the "Honor Code" here at Blair and see the administration taking the easy route of forbidding certain actions and declaring certain punishments. What would be far more valuable to actually creating an environment of academic honor would be a discussion of what honor is and why it is important. We as students are capable of handling that, I think. Students are much more likely to respect a document that respects them.

Creation of a true Honor Code must be based on the student body. After all, it's our honor that's being discussed.

The original ideas of the administration's "Honor Code" are admirable and, indeed, honorable. However, the Code itself is sorely lacking in such honor. It is no more or less than a set of rules governing student behavior, called an "Honor Code" in a combined sugar-coating and scare tactic.

What we need to do now is take our honor into our own hands. Which would you rather have, an "Honor Code" that forbids what is already forbidden and abuses the concept of honor, or a true Code of ethics and integrity developed by and for you, the student?

I thought so.

All comments relating to the Honor Code have been assembled here.

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Joe Howley. Joe Howley is a senior at Blair in the Communication Arts Program. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Online division of Chips and shares the Graphics Editorship with the infamous Brandon Proia. He is resigned to being a hopeless computer "geek," and is already an object … More »

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