Honor codes at schools around the nation are meant as objects of pride, as symbols of a student body committed to high moral standards. At Williams, our lauded honor code fails to meet the same simple standards as other school’s codes: the idea that a student body is capable of self-enforcement of a set of common moral codes.
Instead, in theory and in practice, students are treated more like criminals on parole, eager to break laws if only they could do so without getting caught.
Last year, Dean of the College Peter Murphy spoke in a faculty meeting about the need for enforced seating arrangements during exam periods. Such a plea would be unnecessary if all students were rigorous in exposing cheating on tests. However, an honor code should not merely address issues of plagiarism and test-taking; an honor code should reflect the entire range of commonly held moral standards in the college community. Stealing someone’s bike, while wrong and illegal, is not prohibited under the current honor code at Williams. Does this mean Williams doesn’t care about enforcing common moral standards?
Hardly. In fact, only those students who failed to log into selfreg during drop/add period were informed of Williams’ commitment to high moral standards. They were sent an e-mail from the Registrar’s Office instructing them to go into selfreg to reaffirm their commitment to the moral standards of Williams College. Inside selfreg was a screen instructing students to read the moral and conduct sections located in the student handbook and then press “y” before any other activities.
What are the implications of such a system? First, the actual strength of the honor code is diluted when it has been divided into several sub-sections to be signed separately. Second, by deliberately making it difficult for students to obtain the necessary information regarding the “moral contract” that they must sign, the current system encourages one to simply hit “y” without any thought as to the consequences. Third, the whole idea of a self-enforcement system falls apart if students don’t take the idea seriously. By trivializing each step, students learn to hold the entire system in low regard, which defeats the purpose of an honor system. Finally, by setting different standards for different parts (making a big deal about physically signing the honor code, while simultaneously requiring students to still log into selfreg to sign another part) the administration is providing a conflicting message to students. If it actually is important for all students to physically sign a piece of paper affirming their belief in the honor code, then why not have them sign the moral and conduct items at the same time?
An ideal solution (if the College is committed to creating a real “honor code” that is inclusive of simple moral principles) would be for all students, en masse, to sign a huge contract detailing the standards of conduct that they would abide by. Before this event took place, students would have to read or listen to a list of activities that were prohibited by the item they were going to sign. And, most importantly, signing the pledge would be completely optional. Requiring students to sign a code demanding they behave in a proper manner is both demeaning and improper: if we are to live honorably at Williams, we must be treated just as honorably.
This is why a sweeping change in the honor code system will never happen at Williams. In order for positive change to occur, the student honor committee must come up with a better way of creating an honor pledge. After working hard on a new system, it seems improbable that the committee would then allow students the option of signing a pledge. Yet until this revision occurs, the honor code will continue to be a mild deterrent to cheating, and a joke when it comes to stealing. Maybe it is time to get used to assigned seats.