Honor code pledge fails to enhance moral spirit

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that until I had to sign the honor code this past week, the fact that we had one was not something that had really crossed my mind. However, when I realized that we indeed had an honor code, and that it was undergoing a “revival” of sorts, in that pledging to the honor code would involve a physical signing, I was excited. The “press Y” method in selfreg had indeed been lacking in the spirit of a community of honor, and I was eager to participate in a more assertive endorsement of the code.

I waited until the last available day to sign the honor code. Based partially on my forgetfulness and partially on my poor planning skills, I found myself still in need of honor as of noon last Thursday. Feeling that this was an extremely important activity in which to participate, I trudged across campus through the torrential downpour of Hurricane Floyd. Several people asked me what would happen if I didn’t sign it. I didn’t have a precise answer. I thought I’d heard that they could make trouble for me when I tried to register for winter study, and if I were unable to take a winter study, I would be unable to graduate. Thus, I was effectively being forced to sign up, unless I wanted to explain to my parents that it was raining one day in September and so I couldn’t graduate. This was not a viable option, so I donned my raincoat and set out for the library. I was not at all bothered by the inconvenience. I wanted to sign up.

When I arrived at Sawyer, I found the table devoted to honor sign-ups. I was expecting to add my name to a long list of my fellow students who had arrived before me to share in the code which would bond us all as a community. I was imagining parchment, and perhaps even fountain pens. I assumed that this would be an act steeped in tradition, only briefly forgotten in a rush to become computerized.

Instead I was handed a sheet of white paper, which appeared to be a highly bureaucratic contract involving the issue of a license of some kind, perhaps to operate a motorized water vehicle.

Upon further inspection, I discovered that it imparted a statement on academic honesty and then some additional guidelines on how to be academically honest. I had always assumed that things like plagiarism would result in my expulsion anyway, whether or not I agreed to any additional code. What about the honor part? I wanted to sign up to be honorable, to contribute positively to a community of trust. Somewhat confused, I signed the paper in a puddle dripping from my raincoat and handed it back. Perhaps this was only Step 1. The student monitoring the table took the paper, rapidly ripped apart the two layers, and handed me my yellow carbon-copy receipt. I stood shocked for a moment. I had been issued a receipt on my honor pledge, as though this were the sort of transaction that I would want to keep on file, in case the IRS ever audited my morality.

I lingered a bit longer, believing that somehow this experience could still be salvaged. Then I noticed several stacks of accompanying literature on the table. “Are these for me?” I asked the student. “Sure, you can take them if you’re interested,” was the response. If I was interested? Shouldn’t I be interested? Am I not required to be interested? I began to feel foolish for my idealistic expectations. Alone, I wandered back out into the rain, with my receipt and supporting documents tucked safely into my parka.

I had expected to gain a sense of community from signing the honor code, but instead, the process was held in an isolating environment only slightly less impersonal than the selfreg system. I made my individual contract with honor, but an honor code shouldn’t be something that I can have as an individual. It should be something that I share with the Williams community. We must be more than merely academically honest; we must agree to foster a universal type of conduct, to establish and maintain a healthy and trusting campus environment. This is the sort of pledge I expect from an honor code. This is the sort of promise we should demand of each other.

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