Why Harvard Has No Honor

PERSPECTIVES

"As material fortune is associated with the properties of the body, so honor belongs to those of the soul." --Ptolemy

"In Jersey everything's legal, long as you don't get caught." --Bob Dylan

Harvard has never had an honor code. As students, we are supposed to be honorable without having to formalize our integrity with signature. Unformalized, we can assume that we are moral and avoid the question: Could Harvard students handle a system that demands the full-fledged commitment to integrity that an honor code requires?

An honor code generally demands two things: one, that students do not act dishonorably; and two, that they turn in others who they observe violating number one. (The second clause varies from campus to campus; sometimes it is even omitted). Students sign a pledge to uphold these two conditions upon admission to the college and thereafter live according to the honor code.

Many top schools, including Stanford, Princeton, Wellesley and the California Institute of Technology, have honor codes. So why doesn't Harvard?

I asked Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 whether he thought an honor code was a good idea. He responded in an e-mail that he thinks it is unnecessary: "Our understanding is that in registering at Harvard students agree to abide by the rules of the community they are voluntarily entering. It is not clear why a special signed agreement of another kind would be needed, or would add anything."

Dean Lewis's statement, while on the surface sensible, fails to reach the heart of the issue. An honor code at Harvard would instill a sense of integrity in the community and would help foster an atmosphere in which students and faculty could fully trust one another. To say that signing a pledge of honor is simply a formality is incorrect. An implied commitment to honesty is one thing. Actually putting one's signature to paper is quite another because it places the onus on the individual to be moral because it is the right thing to do, not because he or she might get caught. Under an honor code, a dishonest act, such as cheating on an exam, not only means that a student has broken his or her word, but it violates the trust an entire community has vested into itself.

President Neil L. Rudenstine, who has been spent a total of 24 years at Princeton and 14 years at Harvard, gave an insightful look into the issue of an honor code in a personal interview. When asked about the honor code at Princeton, which was instituted over 100 years ago, he said, "It was instilled and created when there was a crisis; it created a tradition.... Whether [a similar crisis] exists here or not is a real question." But when asked about the difference between Harvard and Princeton, the president responded that he "never felt any particular worry at either place about [students'] integrity, honesty." Henry Bienen, president of Northwestern University (which does not have an honor code) and former professor and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University for a total of more than 20 years, told me that he thinks an honor code "stands for good values.... There is some intrinsic value to an honor code...and if I could wish it into being for a decade, I would."

Without an honor code, Harvard remains an institution overtly suspicious of its students. Proctored exams, a practice that would disappear with an honor code, insult the very integrity we are meant to have. The proctors prowl up and down the aisles with the suspicion that we might cheat. Thus, during exams, students are reduced to "potential cheaters" and not considered mature individuals who have gathered to learn. Only one person can go to the bathroom at a time during an exam at Harvard. What kind of trust does this imply the University has in its students? Harvard applicants are accepted because they are thought to be talented, intelligent, worthy human beings. So while Harvard certainly desires honorable behavior from its students and perhaps assumes it, this institution far from expects it: How such driven over-achievers could not cheat seems to be the looming question.

At Princeton, during a course I took in my senior year of high school, my professor left our final papers outside her door for everyone to take their own, with the idea that we would not look at other students' papers--and to my knowledge, no one broke that inspiring confidence the university had in us. By contrast, in expository writing at Harvard last year, we had to make special appointments to collect our papers because in the words of my expos teacher, "We can't just leave them unattended!" Why not? Does Harvard not even trust us to act honorably when picking up a paper? If so, are its suspicions warranted?

A student at Wellesley told me that she can leave her laptop unattended in the library and not worry that it will be stolen. People have come to take the honor code very seriously at Wellesley; a breach of it does not only symbolize one person's transgression of her word, but it violates the entire community's trust in itself as a functioning entity. A student at Princeton informed me that he thinks his honor code is "too weak" because Princeton redundantly makes you sign your honor code pledge along with each exam and major paper. A sophomore at Harvard College who transferred from Cal Tech told me that his former university's simple code ("no member of the Cal Tech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member") was very effective.

But many considerations must be taken into account before deciding to institute an honor code. Rudenstine offered that scale and location make a difference and that "the more comprehensive [a code is], the more likely it is to fail."

In 1985, Harvard weighed the pros and cons of an honor code. Among the conclusions of the Faculty report, "Honor Code Study," were three main reasons not to institute an honor code:

1. There is no tradition of an honor code at Harvard. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

2. The possible price of a failed honor code (rampant cheating, for example) would be too great to risk.

3. "The 'Harvard milieu' may just not sustain an honor code on any terms. The self-reliance and self-interest of the Harvard student might smother an honor code before it had a chance to grow and thrive."

Neither of the first two reasons suggests that an honor code at Harvard is in and of itself a bad idea; they simply imply that there is not a big enough "crisis." The third objection, however, is a concrete reason why Harvard cannot have an honor code.

The Harvard report rightly suggests we are just too selfish and ambitious to handle an honor code. The Harvard community could not uphold an honor code because a significant number of its members are incapable of putting honor before "success." A good number of Harvard students have weak moral convictions; honor is a hollow word in their vocabularies and consequently they cannot be trusted to act honorably on their own.

The specifics of an honor code vary, but the principle behind one is non-negotiable: Students who have voluntarily entered a community of scholarship ought to be able to trust one another and to live by a certain standard of morality that their signature implies they are willing to do--and that an atmosphere in which a community has agreed to live by an honor code is a more conductive one to producing moral people.

Having an honor code does not mean that people who were previously inclined to cheat will not; what it means instead is that whether to live morally becomes a choice; a sense of responsibility is incurred--both to oneself and to others; and the idea triumphs that we should do what we know or think is right because it's right and not because we have to. There will be few proctors in the real world; therefore, moral choices must ultimately come from within.

The fact that we may be incapable of maintaining an atmosphere in which people trust each other and have a stake in making sure that that trust is not violated--by themselves or anyone else--means that something is wrong in these hallowed halls. Ideally, we would not need an honor code to have unproctored exams; people would live their lives by an internal sense of integrity. But the fact that Harvard decided after much consideration not to try an honor code demands a serious moral inquiry. It forces us to ask: Is there honor at Harvard?

Should Harvard forever abandon the idea of instituting an honor code? Rudenstine admitted he didn't know. He added that we would have to take Harvard's temperature--of faculty and students alike--to see if an honor code could work. I would like to think Harvard could handle it, that Harvard students could maintain the honor their signatures imply. But maybe that will have to wait another 360 years.