On My Honor

Why Kenyon Should Tread Carefully Around an Honor Code

By Jon Green


“On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment.”

On the night of November 12, 1840, a student at the University of Virginia shot and killed professor John A. G. Davis. It is rumored that, on his deathbed, the professor claimed to know who his attacker was but refused to identify him, saying a truly honorable man would step forward on his own. In the wake of the tragedy, University students established an honor code governing both academic and social conduct, the first of its kind on a college campus. It remains one of the only honor codes in the country to be completely student-run.

In addition to appending the above quote to tests, papers and other individual assignments, students must also agree not to lie, cheat or steal while in the city of Charlottesville, the surrounding county of Albemarle or anywhere else where they are representing the University. During exams, professors typically leave the room, and students are presumed honorable until proven otherwise. The University takes great pride in its honor code, warning that prospective students who are not prepared to accept such responsibility should not bother applying.

“Accompanying this individual commitment to abide by the Honor System is an even more demanding commitment, a responsibility to ask those who violate our standard of honor to leave the University.”

There is only one enforcement mechanism for UVA’s honor code: expulsion. Despite its honorable intentions, this creates a cycle of perverse incentives that lead the honor code to cause more harm than good in many cases. Since successfully prosecuting an honor case effectively ends a student’s academic career, most cases are quietly excused. After all, how much sense does it make to expel someone over a five-point quiz? Under the honor code’s blind eye, students cheat more, not less, knowing that failing the given assignment or class is not a possibility. As one UVA professor recently remarked in appraisal of the code’s success, “There is no honor code at UVA.”

So as the Kenyon community deliberates whether or not to enact an honor code of our own, we would do well to choose carefully when picking a model. We could follow UVA’s example and set a rigid standard with a punitive enforcement mechanism. Or we could take a more symbolic approach, merely making students sign a document that amounts to a “terms of use” agreement to go with our existing Student Handbook (this would be a model more closely resembling Colorado College’s honor system, a comparison that was floated in the Collegian last week). If Kenyon’s honor code were to extend beyond academic infractions and included theft, vandalism or, as was discussed in Student Council on January 27th, out of control allstus, it would seem that a separate student body would need to be established to implement and enforce such a code.

Student Council President Faith McDuffie ’13 was quoted in yesterday’s Collegian as saying that this would not be the case. She stated that no new regulations would be enacted as part of any honor code; it would just be a piece of paper that we sign at the beginning of the year. But, lacking any new way to enforce our agreed-upon values, would this academic equivalent of a promise ring serve any functional purpose? If we are serious about upholding Kenyon’s values, shouldn’t we give them some teeth?

Perhaps the symbolism of signing a document affirming that we won’t vandalize school property or glance at someone else’s test paper will make us less likely to do so. Then again, perhaps the lack of consequences for dishonorable behavior will, as it has at UVA, make us more likely to engage in it. If we refuse to back our values up with the credible threat of consequences for violating them, can we really call them “our” values, elevated to a status higher than mere rules?

Calls for an honor code have been a natural response to a spike in academic and social misconduct on our campus. As any community must, we validate ourselves by rewarding in-group behavior and ostracizing out-group behavior. We find it necessary to tell ourselves that we aren’t bad kids; we set ourselves apart from the cheaters and vandals by affirming our own righteousness. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it says a lot about our ability to organize ourselves collectively.

Elevating bad behavior from mere rule breaking to out-and-out dishonor carries with it great potential and great risk. If, upon enacting an honor code, our academic and social ills fade and our community embraces a culture of honor in which we hold each other accountable in ways previously unseen, it would show that we do not avoid dishonorable behavior simply because it is dishonorable; we avoid it because we are at Kenyon and it is dishonorable. Should cheating and vandalism persist or continue to rise, it would show that our community is no different from any other; that we no longer consider our community here at Kenyon as something to be revered. This would not only be a blow to Kenyon’s honor, this would be a blow to Kenyon’s sanctity.

So will we, in the spirit of John A. G. Davis, call on Kenyon’s truly honorable men and women to step forward? As attractive as it may seem, we may not like what we find if and when we do.

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