The Changing Future of the Honor Code

By Guest Contributor

About a year ago the SGA hosted a student forum on the future of the Honor Code. Members of the SGA, the Judicial Board and some faculty members were present, and an invitation was sent to all students encouraging them to come and voice their opinion. As it turned out, a grand total of two students attended the forum (excluding a pack of Campus reporters), and I, as one of them, came away with some serious doubts about the health of our Honor Code. In the year since the forum I have served as a member of the SGA Honor Code Committee working to better understand the role that the Honor Code plays here at Middlebury and how we can build a productive conversation about this evolving document. To that end, we asked two students to share their thoughts on the Honor Code and its place on this campus.

A Limited Reach

As we review the Honor Code, we must consider carefully what the Honor Code is and is not, and what the Honor Code does, and more importantly, does not do.

The Honor Code is useful as a declaration of values to which (ostensibly) the entire student body at Middlebury subscribes, as demonstrated by our signing it at the start of our first year at the College.

The Honor Code is not useful as a deterrent against cheating on exams or against dishonesty writ-large, and to argue otherwise is blind idealism. It is inconceivable that the simple act of signing the Honor Code will bring a person who lacks integrity suddenly to act honorably. We fool ourselves if we think that signing the Honor Code prevents students from cheating; existent instances of cheating themselves are enough to suggest that the Honor Code does not prevent some students from this behavior. A person’s character — their tendency to act with or without integrity — is not easily modified when they matriculate at the College at eighteen years old; rather it is the formation of their character in the eighteen years preceding their matriculation that will weigh most heavily when they decide whether or not to cheat.

The Honor Code is not useless. It does voice a shared set of values and expectations for the student body and for instructors. However, instances of cheating that occur despite the presence of the Honor Code suggest that the Code itself does not provide a sufficient deterrent to cheating.

A more pragmatic approach to the problem would be a “zero-tolerance” policy wherein a single incident of academic dishonesty (perhaps narrowly defined as cheating on an exam, in order to avoid the problem of intent inherent with plagiarism) would lead to severe punishment of the perpetrator that would include a lengthy suspension and would not exclude expulsion. This policy would underscore the College’s belief in the values written into the Honor Code, and more importantly, would clarify that the College will refuse to tolerate those who fail to abide by these values.

– Anonymous

The Weight of Signing

Those that argue that we don’t need a formal honor code simply because there is already an informal “honor code” which we all obey ignore a key aspect of the debate. Sure, we are Middlebury College students and we are here to study and to learn, not to cheat and plagiarize. Still, I will never forget when I was a freshman being introduced to the honor code and one of our FYCs said something stirring about the value of a signature. He said that when you sign your name to something, you sign away part of your soul, part of yourself. He said that there is an essence to your name in ink that is intangible and important, as though the honor code in the air becomes binding when it is manifestly before your face, singed into the paper.

I agree with him. I recall a moment freshman spring when a friend and I exchanged Spanish papers for proofreading. It became apparent very quickly that we had, by coincidence, written eerily similar papers. Some of our sentences were nearly identical. We panicked: is this a violation? Is this “unauthorized aid”? We went straight to the professor and asked him what we should do. He asked, “did you sign the honor code?” We said yes. He said, “then you are fine.”

We don’t need a complex honor code, yet signing one’s name to that substance in the academic air is not without merit. It is a reminder of our integrity, a codification of our own existing beliefs, a confirmation of our place in this environment. It should be simple: “I did not cheat,” or “this is my own work,” or “I am a student of honor.” I for one appreciate the honor code, but I believe it should be revised, simplified, and acknowledged for what it is: a mere affirmation of that by which we all already live, or should be living. There is value to a signature that should be respected, and vitality to a tradition that should be carried on.

– Nathan LaBarba ’14

Today, our Honor Code stands in the face important changes. Questions about professor proctoring, peer reporting and an increasing prevalence of academic dishonesty loom large, but one thing remains sure: our Honor Code must reflect the views of the student body. Since its creation, students have shown ownership and an active interest in the code, and we cannot let this stop. Students, please share your thoughts and ideas in a survey that will be sent out later this week, and help us make the Honor Code truly our Honor Code.

CARTER MERENSTEIN ’16 is from Philadelphia, Penn.

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