The Problem With Honor Codes

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“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 that students 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.

Sam Goldman

Samuel Goldman is a professor of political theory at George Washington University.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With Honor Codes

  1. As a former student and faculty member at the University of Virginia, I can attest to the value of an Honor Code. As a student, I could leave my books and umbrella on a shelf in the student union and be confident that they were going to be there when I returned. The Honor Code was entirely student-run so, when I was on the faculty I didn’t have to police the exams or spend time investigating, prosecuting, and judging any alleged offenses.

  2. The Virginia Military Institute has a long standing honor code dating back to 1839. The University of Virginia’s honor code dates back to 1842. At UVa, however, the administration recently stepped in to allow a proven liar to go unpunished.

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