(We invite all men in the University to submit communications on subjects of timely interest.)
To the Editors of the CRIMSON:
The argument in favor of the honor system in conducting examinations seems to me to be based upon a mistaken view of the object of the present method of supervision by proctors. If the precise object of supervising written examinations is that of inculcating a sense of honor in the participants, there may be something said for banishing the proctor; and we may even welcome the evidence, which is doubtless trustworthy, that in some colleges where cheating has been rife and where there has been practically no public sentiment against it, the introduction of the honor system has apparently brought the student body to a healthier state of mind and conscience on the subject. But the object of supervising an examination is to enable the College to satisfy itself of the integrity of that examination, and to certify accordingly. Such certification is implied in the diploma at graduation and is what gives the diploma acceptance among strangers as evidence of academic attainments. Harvard diplomas are presented at universities in all parts of the world and are often a prerequisite of registration in medicine or at the bar. They announce to all concerned that the degrees for which they stand are based upon examinations which the University guarantees as hav- ing been properly conducted. This guarantee is not the only element in the value of the diploma but it is an important one.
The presence of the proctor in the examination-room is no reflection on the honesty of the candidates, beyond what is involved in the undeniable fact that not all men are honest. In countless transactions of every day life men of unimpeachable honesty cheerfully submit to checks and restraints imposed by society on all for the fault of a few. None of us feel insulted at seeing policemen on the streets or watchmen in banks, nor do we take offense at being obliged to furnish proper identification on cashing cheques or opening a credit account. On the contrary, we regard these precautions as contributing in the long run to our own welfare and safety. On exactly the same principle the honest student values the protection which the proctor's presence affords. It gives a significance to his grades and to his diploma which they would otherwise lack. It protects him from unjust suspicion in making inquiry about the time, borrowing a pencil, or in making other proper communications. The honor system may work better than inefficient proctoring as a discourager of cribbing; but if it is to be compared with efficient proctoring it cannot supply the element of guaranty, unless it involves the systematic spying of students upon each other and the subsequent prosecution of wrong-doers. As in the case of crime in general a surveillance which may be an honorable function when performed by the appointed agents of society is repugnant to the ordinary citizen, so fellow-students would naturally prefer to leave the detection and punishment of cribbing to the appointed authorities of the College.
The establishment of the honor system should be regarded as an extreme measure, to be reluctantly applied in spite of its obvious disadvantages, when student opinion is confessedly so rotten, or so puerile, as to make a general reformation in this respect the object of desperate experiment. It may be seriously questioned, however, whether inefficient or insufficient proctoring, like inefficient or insufficient police, is not the most to blame for lawlessness.
In so far as cribbing is due to the puerile notion that the very presence of the proctor is an invitation to circumvent him, I doubt whether the honor system would result in any greater maturity of moral conceptions. To sign a statement at the end of an examination paper to the effect that he has not cheated should be infinitely more humiliating to a gentleman than to sit within view of a proctor, yet in some colleges, at least, the honor system encourages the view that such a signature is more binding than writing the name at the head of the paper. To stop cheating by making it unconventional, a sort of infraction of good fellowship, precisely misses the point, which is that cheating is wrong because it is wrong and not because it is either conventional or unconventional. A good illustration of the failure to see this point was afforded in a certain college that had lately adopted the honor system, when a prominent undergraduate innocently asked the President when the new system was to "take effect." He wished to know how soon he should begin to observe the niceties of behavior required by the new regime!
In my opinion things are not so bad as that at Harvard and until they are I hope the honor system will not be resorted to. '96. New York, May 15, 1911