A Moral Education

In the classes and in the Houses, students need and want a strong honor system

Last week the Class of 2015 was asked by College administration to sign a pledge promising to act with integrity, respect, and industry during their time at Harvard. The pledge has drawn diverse reactions from leaders in our community. Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis called the pledge “very unscholarly” and “very unlike Harvard.”  Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 defended the pledge as a means of disseminating Harvard’s overarching values. However, the Freshman Pledge should be controversial only because of its moderate scope; it is only the beginning of the moral education Harvard should impart on undergraduates.

In a spring 2011 freshman survey, members of the Class of 2014 ranked success as the value Harvard most stands for. They ranked compassion as one of the values it least stands for, among the options provided, although they ranked it high among the values they personally stood for. This is more than “unfortunate,” as The Crimson was told; it is completely unacceptable.

The misalignment between students’ values and those they perceive this institution as having is worrisome. It stands that we joined this community to become better versions of ourselves. However, the survey conveyed that the Class of 2014 does not believe Harvard prioritizes the same type of self-improvement they do.

This seems one more piece of evidence that the College needs to provide a stronger moral education. While is true that students hear of promoting understanding and serving society, at Commencement, both this instance and the pledge, are momentary messages. The fact is that students receive more reminders to turn in their study cards than they do to be nice.

This education should encompass, at the least, a forceful honor code, that is referenced frequently and specifically in classes and in the Houses. The honor code should encompass much more than a simple commitment to academic honesty—it should instead offer a wider moral vision like those at certain peer institutions like Princeton, which encourages integrity among undergraduates in all spheres of student life. Moreover, Harvard would have significant advantage in creating an honor code today; it would be able to learn from the mistakes of its peer institutions and create a more modern system of academic and community regulations in light of the Internet and other new technologies.

Advocating for an overarching honor code is not at all a new idea. Harvard University and Harvard College have believed in the idea of a moral education for years. On June 10, 1962, for instance, President Nathan M. Pusey explained his conception of a “moral education” as “Harvard’s hope that there will develop here generation after generation—now as in the past—of thoughtful men who through their beliefs and actions will go on to renew and strengthen true quality in the world’s life.” In fact, the view of a moral education has been in American national discourse throughout recent decades, and Harvard would be well within its means to codify a set of moral values for its students beyond the overly simple encouragement of “kindness,” which could mean many things.

In order to ensure that our college and university is a “place where all can thrive,” the student body needs an explicit affirmation of the moral value set that should guide the Harvard community, if it is to be a happy and fulfilling place to spend one’s formative years. As long as the signing of the freshman pledge remains voluntary, there is no good reason why the student body and the administration cannot embark together upon a bolder course of action with respect to the codification of morality at Harvard.  An honor system to be presented at the beginning of one’s Harvard career, and impressed at many intervals until graduation, would strengthen and better define community values. It would curb academic dishonesty. And it would truly bring integrity, respect, compassion, and kindness on par with success.