The Honor Code Has No Honor

I just read a report that
64 percent of high-school kids admitted to having cheated.
It’s reasonable to assume that a lot of these high school cheaters go on to college, and it’s also reasonable to assume that, once in college, they’re not going to suddenly stop cheating.

Most colleges and universities think they contain the problem of cheating by prominently displaying in their bulletins some sort of honor code or honor system. Students are on their honor not to cheat, and many colleges add the requirement that students are on their honor to report cheating if they see it. Anyone who thinks these college and university honor systems are working believes that the tooth fairy lives and breathes and the sun revolves around the earth.

Allow me to put the problem in a broader context: How can an honor system in a high school, college or university work when the very word “honor” is an anachronism? The only people who still use the word “honor” in America are those in the military. The rest of us value honor so little that we rarely if ever even use the word. Even manners — built on the platform of honor — barely exist. It would be one thing if we lived in the 18th century, when men dueled to the death over the honor of women and casual insults tossed out in conversation. Or if we lived in India, or China, or Japan, where leaders seem to automatically resign whenever national tragedies or terrible corporate malfeasances happen under their watch.

But we live in America, where we developed the American adversarial system. Here we believe attorneys ought to do whatever’s legal (i.e., do whatever they can get away with) to defend their clients and then leave it to the jury to sort things out. And when a company goes down in America, or we have a national catastrophe, executives or national leaders say, “I take full responsibility for what happened,” all the while holding tight to their jobs. In our society, nobody has an obligation to own up to the truth. Instead, we have an obligation to get as far ahead as possible as long as someone else doesn’t stop us. In no case does honor apply to resisting temptation — which is precisely what’s called for in order for cheating not to occur under the honor system.

Since honor in America doesn’t exist, we should replace college honor systems with an academic penal code. (We should have a penal code for faculty malfeasances as well, but that’s for another discussion.) I propose the academic penal system be phased in slowly, so that incoming students understand the new rules.

The new rules should be something like this: The first cheating offense earns the grade “WC” (meaning, “withdrew from course for cheating”) and the student is required to withdraw from the course. The grade stays on the transcript until graduation, when a “W” replaces it if there are no further instances of cheating. A second offense earns a grade of “WC” and the two grades of “WC” earned by the student remain permanently on the transcript. The third offense follows the American way — three strikes and you’re out. Three offenses and you’re expelled for cheating.

By moving to a simple system of crime and punishment that dispenses with the mushy idea of honor that no one believes in anyway, we’d finally be telling the truth. It would be a sad move, but we’d at least achieve better results when it comes to curbing cheating.

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