What’s the Honor Code Sans Honor?

By Kyle Finck

I wrote this week’s honor code story while sitting in the lobby of a hotel on baseball’s spring training trip in Tucson, Ariz. As players made their way to and from dinner, I casually polled the 20-or-so who asked me what I was doing about their thoughts on Middlebury’s honor code.

“What honor code?” said one player. “It’s a total joke.”

The overwhelming majority concurred that the honor code was nothing more than a piece of paper they signed and then forgot about. While my straw poll — white, male athletes — is by no means representative of the student body as a whole, the responses confirmed the unspoken stench of student apathy I got while reporting on this story.

The reverence for the code by some has created a fiscal cliff of anxiety over what a Middlebury with no honor code would look like. But just as sequestration has turned out to be worse in theory than in reality, the same might be true with the code. If we woke up tomorrow without an honor code, would something be unalterably different?

From talking with Karen Guttentag, the majority of cheaters these days are not going through elaborate schemes of programming calculators or writing formulas on the inside of water bottle labels to gain an advantage. Most cheaters do not go into exams thinking they will end up cheating. It is the cumulative weight of multiple pressures that makes kids crack. As I heard over and over again, cheaters are often “good kids who make a mistake.” So in many senses, the presence of a proctor in a test may deter a lot of exam infractions.

Middlebury students in 2013 are not unscrupulous compared to their peers in the 1960s when the honor code was first instated. But the pressures students face today are undoubtedly more intense, leading many into a lose-lose situation of either cheating or falling short of expectation.

But the honor code has become so sacrosanct, that even the thought of having a professor sitting in an exam room is blaspheme. But what if the honor code isn’t fundamentally working?

Students are cheating, but nobody wants to step up to the plate. The code is only as good as the students upholding it, which begs the question: is the honor code just something proudly peddled by tour guides and nostalgically pined by alumni?

If so, then something needs to change.

The student body is very reactionary by nature. Asking students to come discuss the future of the honor code was fruitless — two students showed up, while three Campus reporters, two faculty members and two administrators attended. Shirley Collado, Karen Guttentag and the rest of the administration work hard to avoid an us-versus-them mentality between students and Old Chapel. They want to see the student body show some gumption and try to fix the code from the inside out.

But in this case, I don’t see students changing course and all of a sudden caring about the future of the code, despite Charlie Arnowitz’s best effort. If the Honor Code Student Committee can’t drum up student interest, maybe they should instate a pilot program of faculty proctoring for the 2013-2014 academic year. At the end of next year, task the student committee, community council and faculty council with deciding the fate of the honor code. Having one full year of proctoring would put a face on what an academic community without an honor code would look like. More importantly, it would garner the student respect and involvement that the conversation over the long-term health of the honor code deserves.

KYLE FINCK ’14 is an investigative editor from Manhattan, N.Y.

The Campus‘ editorial board commented on the honor code earlier in the staff editorial of the March 13 issue.