Honoring the Honor Code

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Gilman students, present and former, can rattle it off in a mindless rush, just as other people do with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, or any statement repeated by rote thousands of times:  As a gentleman, I have acted honorably in writing this paper.

Current students of local schools both private and public — all of whom asked to remain anonymous — told me tales of paper-copying, plagiarism, re-written answers, and plenty of other non-honorable behavior. Meanwhile, schools promote honor policies with lofty phrases (“honor in every phase of school and personal life should be scrupulously maintained,” trumpets the Roland Park Country School’s policy, for example).  In an era of intense pressure and unrealistic expectations, what is the honor code’s place in our schools?

While many students admit that academic dishonesty is common, they point out that it rarely looks like the cheating seen in after-school specials.  “I’ve never heard of anyone writing answers on their hand, or something like that. That kind of ‘classic cheating,’ the stuff that’s really blatant, is practically unheard of,” says one Bryn Mawr senior.  A senior at Friends agrees:  “Whether or not there is a problem with cheating depends on what you consider cheating.”  The big scandals at different schools — the girl who plagiarized a major project, or the top-10 student who re-wrote the answers on a math test — are rare enough that students recount them in hushed tones. Instead, honor code violations are much more likely to be petty, daily behaviors.

It turns out that among students, there is an implicit moral code to dishonesty.  “I never cheated because I couldn’t do the work, but only because I didn’t,” one former Gilman student told me. And while the distinction may not matter to teachers and administrators, to students it makes all the difference.  “As dumb as it may sound, everyone who does [cheat] is very moral about it,” a 2010 Gilman grad, told me. “Most people I know wouldn’t cheat on something they didn’t have the information to.” Cheating on tests and exams is rare and frowned upon; cheating on projects or homework is much less of a big deal. Emailing your teacher a purposefully corrupted document so you can have a few extra days to work on your essay?  That’s a sneaky way to boost grades, but it’s not the same as buying a paper from the internet.  Spell-checking French homework, while not entirely on the up-and-up, is more like “taking advantage” of the system, rather than cheating, according to the Bryn Mawr senior. 

The distinction matters because, in the social world of high school, major cheating is looked down upon. At both Bryn Mawr and Gilman, honor violations are announced in assembly; even if the offenders aren’t named, “everyone knows who it is,” one student told me.  “The judgement of peers is a big deterrent [to cheating],” the Bryn Mawr senior said, mentioning one girl who was called out in class for looking at another student’s paper during a test. “There’s a real sense of embarrassment and shame, because everyone knows.”

In general, as students see it, the teachers and administration are partially to blame for the prevalence of these low-level honor code violations. “At times, the amount of work we’re doing seems so ridiculous that it makes the honor code kind of ridiculous,” one student said.  Other students returned again and again to the subject of pressure — the difficulty of being a three-season athlete juggling AP classes, extracurricular commitments, and college applications.  One teacher will assign a mountain of work without seeming to realize that all the other teachers are doing the same.  The idea of even having any time to enjoy high school, one sophomore told me wistfully, was difficult to imagine. Not surprisingly, then, many of the cheaters the students knew weren’t lazy kids who didn’t feel like putting in the work, but rather valedictorian-caliber students who felt as though they couldn’t risk even one bad quiz grade.  “I don’t think he cared about calculus,” one alum said about a classmate who got caught cheating on a math test. “He cared about getting into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.”

Spend any time talking at length with teenage high achievers, and you might end up feeling dismayed.  Their stories of rampant pressure, competition, and cheating can make it sound as though they see high school as a system meant to be gamed.  But that’s hardly the whole story.  Again and again, I was surprised and encouraged to hear students speak of the honor code with a respect approaching reverence. Harrison Hart attended Gilman for three years before transferring to Phillips Academy Andover, where the honor code was “far more academic, strictly procedural” than Gilman’s broader emphasis on “the substance of honor.” He was surprised to find that he missed Gilman’s honor statement. Whereas others worry that the rote repetition of the honor code leaches meaning from the words, Hart sees it differently:  “By repeating the action [of writing or stating the honor code], you’re internalizing an obligation of honor.”  And even though one Gilman alum had plenty of smart, critical things to say about how the honor code is deployed, he thought Gilman should hold onto it.  “It’s important to the school,” he said. “And it’s not the honor code that’s the problem.  It’s having these foolish academic expectations.  The emphasis needs to be on learning to become a better person. That’s the culture that needs to change.”

Students have various ideas about how that change might come about.  For some, it boils down to encouraging sincere personal relationships between administrators, teachers, and students.  “The best method [to keep students from cheating] is when a well-respected teacher looks you in the eye and says, ‘This is on your honor,’” the Bryn Mawr senior said.  Having peers who serve on honor councils is another way that students connect to honor policy in a positive way.  The Towson High School student lamented missed opportunities for discussion. “Sometimes, on the morning announcements, they’ll say ‘Don’t cheat.’ But they don’t give a reason, they just say ‘Don’t.’ If they gave some solid reasoning, or if the teachers really discussed it and explained that cheating is bad for the students, I think that might change things.” Gilman is already ahead of the game in this manner — the school hosts assemblies and discussions about the place of honor in students’ lives.

At the end of the day, though, cheating will probably always be a part of high school life, no matter how earnest the honor code or how committed the teachers. And while Hart agrees that “it basically all comes down to discussion,”  he also points out that “at the end of the day, it’s not the pledge that has value, but how it’s internalized. There’s only so much the school can teach.”



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