The Wren Building at the College of William and Mary, home of the nation’s first honor code

My freshman orientation at a small liberal arts college included a rather solemn gathering where all new students gathered in a theater to learn about the school’s honor code. During that ceremony, the president of the honor council reviewed the terms of the policy, and then all students were invited (and implicitly required) to line up, proceed to the front of the room, and sign their names in a large book wherein they promised to adhere to the code.

A couple of weeks later, one of my freshman classmates was caught stealing CD’s from a neighbor’s dorm room. The thief had been at the honor system orientation like the rest of us, but evidently the ceremony had not taken effect with this young man, who was expelled.

I wondered then, and I wonder now, if personal honor is something which can be instilled via school policy.

It’s estimated that about 100 colleges still maintain honor codes. The websites of those schools usually provide both histories of their codes as well as detailed policies for their application.

The College of William and Mary introduced the first honor system, which the school traces back to 1736 but which was formalized under the direction of alumnus Thomas Jefferson in 1779. The most sensational honor code history probably comes from the University of Virginia, where the 1842 shooting of a professor by a student instigated the development of the school’s pledge. Later in the 19th century, at Virginia and other southern schools, the honor code was sometimes conflated with larger ideals of gentility and expanded to address matters such as cheating at cards and proper conduct with women.

More importantly, though, today’s policy statements about honor codes implicitly raise questions of logic and consistency. Given the legalistic details of these evolved and expanded systems, one senses that these college communities have never resolved the underlying tensions within the concept of an all-encompassing virtue-by-declaration. Consider the following questions.

A recognition of 150 years (now 175 years) of the honor code at the University of Virginia

Does honor stop at the campus gates?

Currently, incoming students at William and Mary recite the school’s honor pledge from 1842:

“As a Member of the William and Mary community I pledge, on my Honor, not to lie, cheat, or steal in either my academic or personal life. I understand that such acts violate the Honor Code and undermine the community of trust of which we are all stewards.”

The pledge to be honorable in both academic and personal settings is admirable, and it’s also notable, as it touches on an unsettled question behind many school codes: can one be a Person of Honor in certain settings but not in others?

Unlike William and Mary, most schools restrict the scope of their current honor pledges to academic activity only. In one sense, this approach seems more graceful and realistic: how many college students will go four years without ever lying anywhere? But at the same time, such policies strangely imply that honorable character is something which can be turned on or off in different contexts.

Must an honorable person report on a cheater?

Our survey of code policies published on school websites indicates that most do not require a witness of code violations to report on that other person’s behavior. However, some schools do maintain “dual” honor codes where failure to report another person’s violation is itself a violation.

Davidson College’s venerable code includes this statement: “Every student shall be honor bound to report immediately all violations of the Honor Code of which the student has first-hand knowledge; failure to do so shall be a violation of the Honor Code.”

Similary, students at Lynchburg College must state in their pledge, “I, therefore, pledge that during my tenure as a student at Lynchburg College, I will not lie, cheat, or steal either in College affairs or in the environs of the College, nor tolerate such actions by fellow students.” In Lynchburg’s case, the policy directs witnesses of offenses to ask the offender to self-report.

On one hand, such dual honor codes are commendable for their rigid integrity. If one agrees to join a community of honorable conduct, it seems reasonable to accept responsibility for helping to maintain that community. I also respect the clearcut guidance given to students on this matter: by contrast, schools which do not have this “dual” aspect in their codes tend only to “strongly encourage” students to report on others, while stopping short of requiring it. Well, if students are supposed to, why aren’t they required to?

But at the same time, one must consider where honor ranks among other important values, such as friendship and loyalty. If you observe an honor code violation by someone you love, is it fair to expect you to turn that person in? Is “honor” separate from and superior to values of loyalty and friendship?

Are there degrees of dishonor?

Just as our penal code recognizes varying degrees of crimes along the spectrum of misdemeanors and felonies, most school honor codes identify a hierarchy of violations.

The policy at William and Mary, for example, codifies three different categories of undergraduate violations, with only the highest level resulting in possible suspension or dismissal of the student.

When determining punishment, Vanderbilt University’s ajudication policy directs its honor council to consider three factors–the flagrancy of the violation, the premeditation of the offense, and the truthfulness of the accused during the investigation–and to rank each on the following scale: low, medium low, medium, medium high, or high.

These stratified approaches, which are typical of most schools with honor codes, reflect an understandable and experience-based effort to prescribe how punishments should fit crimes. Here again, though, one encounters another inconsistency in the concept of an insitutional Person of Honor: can such a person engage in just a little cheating or a little lying?

Jefferson, the spiritual father of American honor codes, would probably answer “no.” He hinted at his absolutism on this matter in a letter to Peter Carr:

“…he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

Today, Jefferson’s University of Virginia is unusual in that it maintains a “single sanction system,” where any instance of lying, cheating or stealing results in dismissal.

Is cheating getting too nuanced?

Honor codes are usually based on simple, one-sentence pledges–something like “Upon my honor I will not lie, cheat, or steal while at [school],” yet their published policies require many paragraphs to elucidate those pledges and address a variety of violations and circumstances.

As noted above, most schools define different degrees of violations. It appears that the issue of plaigiarism has informed much of this stratification, as schools struggle to quantify that offense. For example, much of the distinction between William and Mary’s three severity levels involves varying examples of plagiarism.

Most any college professor who receives student essays will confirm that plagiarism is pervasive but not always dishonorable. There is a spectrum of plagiarism, ranging from the blatant, uncredited copying of text to the possibly vague incorporation of another’s ideas. The gray area within this spectrum has always posed an enforcement challenge for professors. But in the modern era of hyper-intertextual activity, where websites replicate other websites and everywhere text is copied and pasted with a couple of taps, concepts of authorship and ownership can be hazy. In this context, today’s students tend to receive more grace when pleading ignorance about marginal infractions.

Meanwhile, there are other examples of cheating-but-not-quite. Harvard’s policy, for example, includes a long paragraph explaining how students can’t re-use their original work in different classes. Harvard and other schools also provide guidelines on questionable activity involving group work, tutoring services, and other risky situations.

Most of us would probably agree that we still know lying, cheating, or stealing when we see it, even in the “it’s complicated” era. Nevertheless, what message does a school send when it holds students to a gallant 15-word honor pledge, but then goes on to codify that pledge with pages of legalistic paragraphs, citations, and appendices?

“Assume a Virtue…”

With just a little reflection, it becomes obvious that honor is not something which can be instilled via community policy. My CD-stealing classmate, who had so recently signed his name in the special honor book, demonstrated this clearly. Also, his punishment of expulsion was probably no different than it would have been at a school without an official “honor system.” Lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited at most any campus, regardless of whether Jefferson’s spirit looms to inject the matter with gravitas.

But at the same time, honor codes promote concepts which are sadly unfamiliar for today’s students: senses of history, tradition, higher living, good conduct, and personal accountability. To an extent, they also provide explanation of the “why” behind what would otherwise be a valueless list of prohibitions in a student handbook.

I realize there’s nothing magical or transformative about taking an honor pledge or signing a book, but I’m glad there are still colleges which ask students to do so. I’ll just remember not to think too much about the logic of it all.