Abolish the Honor Code

Abolish the Honor Code

“The Honor Code is the university’s statement on academic integrity written by students in 1921.”

Thus states Stanford’s website, describing our head-scratching academic standards. Written by students? This immediately sets off alarm bells. Those hucksters of 1921, who somehow convinced administrators that they were imbued with positively Aristotelian virtue, established one of the most bizarre features of a Stanford education. From unmonitored exams to a wildly unrealistic request that we turn in our dishonest peers, the honor code is a broken document. This won’t be a popular position among the bevy of Stanford students who regularly profit from our lax invigilation standards, but there is no question that the honor code should be abolished and replaced with something more rigorous.

The honor code is based on the quaint idea that Stanford students should be respected and trusted to self-police. To this end, professors are explicitly instructed to “refrain from proctoring examinations and from taking unusual and unreasonable precautions” to prevent us from cheating. This produces the visual farce of tenured professors sitting outside examination halls for hours, twiddling their thumbs while students complete their work inside. Presumably administrators are worried that we might perceive any kind of exam supervision as an insult to our dignity. The honor code, in a sense, treats us as adults — fully formed human beings who have developed ideas of right and wrong and live by them.

In even this regard, the honor code is antiquated, because treating students like adults is a practice that universities have otherwise forgotten. If the university were worried about insulting our dignity or maturity, it could start by tapering off the steady supply of emails advertising group crying sessions or animals to pet when we’re stressed. With our meals prepared for us, our surroundings kept pristine by an array of support staff, and opportunities for internships and exciting seminars basically handed to us, we are expected to perform very few of the responsibilities that come with living independently. The honor code’s assumption that we are autonomous creatures who can be trusted to make our own decisions is at odds with the coddled lifestyle we lead on campus.

But maybe we should celebrate this last vestige of respect that the administration yields to us. Part of me is heartened by the high opinion that administrators must hold of students to maintain this standard, nearly a hundred years after its inception. But a larger part of me knows that cheating at Stanford is rampant and that this show of faith does little to dampen it. Honor code violations have long bedeviled administrators, and continue to do so; a recent Stanford Daily article reported that, last quarter, CS 229 teachers encountered so many likely honor code violations that prosecuting them all would have been an impossible task. Anecdotally speaking, many of my friends and I can attest to having witnessed cheating in exams or clearly-prohibited forms of collaboration on problem sets.

Trusting Stanford students, then, is generous but misguided. In an increasingly competitive academic environment, the temptation to secure a good grade on a test becomes mightily strong, while the risk of being caught borders on nonexistence. Maybe if more Stanford students believed that God was watching, shaking His finger at their malfeasance, or genuinely believed in some kind of universal ethics, things would be different. Perhaps they were in 1921. But success, not virtue, is the highest value that Stanford students hold themselves to in the present day, and so while there might be a few good eggs left, the bad ones see an opportunity to succeed and grab it. They are aided and abetted in this by the technology produced in Stanford’s backyard, too; one can surreptitiously Google a forgotten formula or consult notes on a smartphone with ease.

Under the present regime, the only real mechanism by which Stanford students might be caught is if one of their peers decides she has had enough and turns someone else in. The honor code directly calls for this, asking students to “do their share and take an active part” in reporting violations. I don’t know what social dynamics were like in 1921; maybe that was just par for the course back then — see something, say something. But that simply isn’t a realistic expectation anymore. Turning someone in is one of those curious moral situations where you’re doing what is objectively the right thing, but you also seem like a loser for doing it. There’s something bothersome about a student undermining one of her equals like that. The student who rats on another student for academic dishonesty is redolent of — in fact, probably the same person as — the kid in high school who reminded the teacher to give out homework. Then again, Stanford is probably replete with such students, so maybe I’m in the minority here.

Look at the websites of Harvard, Yale. Their honor codes are clear: no cheating allowed. Stanford’s policy need be no more complicated than that — no cheating allowed, and we will make sure you don’t. This is a common-sense change, so the administration probably won’t make it. But if Stanford’s claims to be unshackled by tradition are anything other than hot air, they will give those rascals of 1921 the shove and abolish the honor code.

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