An Honorable Proposition
As I type away at Lamont, defending the commodification of self in a paper on dwarf tossing for Justice, nature calls. What should I do? First, I could leave my laptop in mid-sentence and run to the bathroom. Second, I could close my laptop and attempt to cover it with loose papers and my jacket. Third, I could take my laptop into the bathroom and try not to drop it. Yet, should I not have a fourth option? Should I not be able to leave my laptop open, leisurely stroll to the bathroom, use the hand dryer twice, check e-mail on the way back and not worry about my laptop mysteriously disappearing from the desk?
I find that I ask myself these questions far too often in Lamont. I like to spread my novels, course packs, Coke, notes and folders all over the desk. If I have to go to the bathroom or if I want to check e-mail, I should not have to worry about leaving everything as is, including my jacket and backpack. Although I do frequently leave my desk, a part of me, perhaps that part most influenced by my mom, whispers into my ear that I should not be gone too long, for one never knows who will walk by.
If I were attending the University of Virginia (UVA), I would be more comfortable in this situation. Created in 1842, the entirely student-run and oldest university honor system has served the community well. As the oldest college in the United States, Harvard has a tradition of excellence and, one would like to think, a tradition of honor as well. Yet, the College does not respect or regard honor as a primary goal. If it did, it would have instituted such an honor system. The College sponsors a mandatory forum on diversity for freshmen, but a forum on honor does not exist. Harvard should follow the example of UVA and create a student-run honor system.
Upon entering UVA, each student pledges to act honorably and to hold fellow students to the same standard. According to the official website of the Honor Committee, an honor offense is defined as an intentional act of lying, cheating or stealing which warrants permanent dismissal from the university. To determine if an alleged offense meets the standard of an honor offense, a series of questions are asked: Was the act of lying, cheating or stealing committed? Was the act committed willfully or intentionally? Would open toleration of such an act impair the community of trust sufficiently enough to warrant permanent dismissal from the university? Whereas the first two questions are relatively clear-cut, the third question of seriousness elicits the most debate. You could still steal a spoon from the dining hall, but if caught, you would be reprimanded. However, if you were to steal a laptop from the library, you could potentially be expelled. At UVA, students serve as lawyers and random students are selected to form a jury. An independent investigative panel serves as a check on the evidence gathering process and on the validity of the decisions made by the case investigators.
Whenever people identify themselves as UVA students or interact with anyone in the immediate area, the honor system is expected to be upheld. First-year Dean Sean K. Driscoll, a friend of mine who serves as a lawyer for the accused, says that the system is respected, effective and appreciated by the overwhelming majority of the university. The logic and benefits of a student-run and monitored honor system are undeniable.
The logical extension of the mission statement of Harvard College supports an honor system. Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 defines part of the mission of Harvard as encouraging students to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions and hopes that the College will lead students to serve society. An honor system is one way in which Harvard can better fulfill these ends. Raising consciousness and accountability may not prevent a student from stealing a laptop, but if caught, the trial process may prevent him from stealing in the future. In addition, one would hope that if someone saw an act of theft, he or she would feel justified and comfortable in bringing the matter before the student-composed honor committee. If a student failed to do this and was later caught, he or she would be held responsible.
An honor system would also be a good exercise in self-governance. Whereas the Undergraduate Council is a relatively detached and periphery organization to those who are not involved, an honor system involves the entire campus by default. The inclusiveness of an honor system cannot help but to increase the sense of community responsibility, respect and cohesion.
A trusting community naturally leads to a more convenient community. One would hopefully feel less apprehensive about leaving personal items on desks in the library. Enacting an honor system could also solve the hassle and degradation of opening up one's backpack upon leaving a library. Perhaps Harvard could even consider unproctored examinations which would aid those who perform better in a comfortable setting without hearing everyone else furiously writing and some stranger calling out the time every five minutes.
An honor system embodies the idea that one must live out and stand up for professed principles. If one sees a peer snatch a copy of Howard's End from Lamont and does not report the violation to anyone, to what extent is the observer being morally consistent if he or she recognizes that there is a fundamental problem with stealing? I believe that a majority of Harvard would acknowledge the sensibility of an honor system, both in principle and practice. I urge the community to look at UVA and heed the successful history of the program there. One should not have to consider fumbling with a laptop in the bathroom.
Robert J. Saranchak is a first-year living in Wigglesworth Hall.