Honesty & Honor Codes

By: Neil Mufson
As we focus this month on the value “honesty,” my mind returned to a New York Times piece that appeared last spring.  Written by Middlebury College student Jessica Cheung, “The Fading Honor Code” discussed a student survey that found that 35% of Middlebury respondents “admitted to violating the honor code at least once in the 2012-13 academic year” and that 63% “would feel neutral about, or not report, cheating.”   A campus-wide debate ensued about this hallmark underpinning of a Middlebury education.  Middlebury’s honor code purportedly promotes peer proctoring and prohibits professors “from being in the exam room without the permission of the dean.” It also “morally obligates” student witnesses to report cheating.

As a result of the discussion, for the first time in the history of the school’s honor code, professors in the economics department (currently the most popular major) successfully petitioned the administration to proctor exams for seven courses. Leung maintains that the administration quickly conceded that the concept of student-monitored tests was outmoded.  Even the college’s president was quoted as saying, “If exams are proctored, it wouldn’t be a big loss.”

Yet Leung eloquently argues that instead of watering down the honor code, efforts should have been made to enhance student honesty.  By abandoning the loftier human expectations embodied in the code, the university undermines the expectation of integrity, which, Leung believes, it should be championing.

Leung writes that “ethical judgment… has been supplanted by our need to succeed. The pressure that got us into an elite college still dogs us; now the goal is a high-paying job or graduate school.”  Furthermore, she holds that “a culture that is tolerant of bad behavior will not only doom students to continued complacency, but ultimately rationalize more severe acts of deceit.  The real point of an education is to teach us to be more critical of ourselves… Learning from our mistakes is, after all, why we’re here.”

This dilemma resonates even at the elementary and middle school level.  From the earliest ages, students need to learn that honesty is almost always “the best policy” and that it inspires trustworthiness, one of the fundamental building blocks of human connection.  Children need adult help to learn that character is defined by “what we do when no one is looking,” and that by acting honestly towards others and oneself, they are doing the right thing.  Ultimately, it is as Leung observes, “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.”  At The Country School, we are dedicated to these ideals right from the start.  But we know that part of starting right is recognizing that these lessons maintain lifelong relevance.

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