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Is Honor Up for Grabs?

The Washington Post, May 27, 2001


When I read about the plagiarism scandal at the University of Virginia this month, I was struck by how much attitudes had changed – – about intellectual property, about honor codes – in the relatively short period between my time as a student at Haverford College and my taking a position as a journalism professor at NYU.

The essentials of a university education aren’t all that different than they were in the mid-1980s, but my students’ assumptions about the nature of information (a k a knowledge) are. We are witnessing nothing less than the Napsterization of knowledge – the notion that ideas (like music) are little more than disembodied entities, “out there” in the ether, available to be appropriated electronically in any way users wish. As a result, the line between the hard-won insights that are produced by solitary scholarship, and the quotidian conclusions that collaboration yields, has been blurred. What now constitutes honorable behavior is an open question.

In early May, 122 students at U-Va. who had taken Physics 105 and 106 (an extremely popular “physics-for-poets”-like course called “How Things Work”) over the past five semesters were accused of cheating on their term papers, e-mailing each other passages or copying papers from students who took the class in the semesters before them.

In light of reports of an increase in electronic cheating at high schools and colleges across the country (some studies estimate that as much as 80 percent of students have committed some form of cheating), the news that their physics professor, Louis A. Bloomfield, had written a software program to compare student papers and ferret out cheaters was portrayed as a cyber-age cautionary tale: Having grown tired of their children’s clever technological tricks, the adults were in charge again.

“The same technology that had enabled plagiarism in previous years can now be used to detect it,” says Bloomfield. “I am a physicist and educator, but my job is also to protect intellectual integrity.” (The program is available, free, at That the university is one of only about 100 colleges (out of 3,500 nationwide) with an honor code – in this case an especially severe “single-sanction” system, under which students found guilty are expelled – only heightened the drama.

But I sensed that the debate surrounding the scandal was obscuring something fundamental about the notion of an honor code. The emphasis was on the ineffectiveness of U-Va.’s anachronistic “code,” rather than the knottier moral question of its students’ “honor.” The assumption seemed to be that the honor code was little more than an oversight mechanism, and a pretty shabby one at that. The conventional wisdom hearkened back to a slogan from the Reagan- Gorbachev era, “Trust, but verify.” Sure, honor codes were a quaint idea, but let’s get serious. Clearly the system was broken, and here was a tough-minded professor with a way to “fix” it.

My own encounter with an honor code helped make me who I am today. I attended a competitive private New York City high school in the pre- pre-Internet era, where cheating was fairly common (although not rampant), and a healthy portion of the senior class was shuttled off to Ivy League colleges every year. That was the point, after all. Although we received an excellent education, almost nothing was ever said about the reason – ethical or otherwise – for all this learning. The implication, however, was clear: Knowledge was a means to an end, rarely an end in itself.

After high school, I majored in philosophy and theology at Haverford in Pennsylvania, where the communitarian spirit of its Quaker founders was still in the air. One manifestation of that spirit was the honor code, which had been in force since 1896.

Haverford’s honor code is not a list of rules, but rather “a philosophy of conduct through honesty, integrity and understanding.”

It was a simple bargain. In return for promising to act responsibly, we were afforded an extraordinary amount of freedom: self-scheduled, unsupervised exams, the trust of our professors. Every spring the student body came together to debate and ratify the code. It was a good example of the kind of “living tradition” the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre extols in his book “After Virtue” – a tradition that is essentially an argument about the point and purpose of that tradition. Beyond debating the principles according to which we were going to live together, we were debating ourselves: How much of the real world’s petty vices would we allow in? How were we going to conduct ourselves when we left this book-lined cloister?

The honor code had an especially profound effect on my view of intellectual life. Before college, I was disturbed by the conformity and competition of my classmates and skeptical about the ultimate worth of the carrot that was dangled before us. At Haverford, the complete lack of supervision made the possibility of cheating so easy that cheating (literally) didn’t make sense; I worked harder (and with better results) than I ever had before. The honor code provided a unique occasion for reflection. It helped clarify my choices: I could either cut corners, cheat and lead an inauthentic life; or I could discover what was possible when my motivation was completely internal.

Which isn’t to say that an honor code is an abstraction; a strong honor code has serious consequences for a community. The uncomfortable question of precisely how it should be enforced is always lurking in the shadows. At Haverford, the most vigorous disagreement was over the code’s stipulation that a student had himself violated it if he witnessed an infraction without confronting the violator. The responsibility to “rat” on fellow students didn’t sit well with most of us.

The argument – some version of which I suspect is taking place in Charlottesville right now – came down to this: Was the responsibility to confront fellow students an integral part of the honor code, or was it merely a pragmatic enforcement mechanism, a clever way for the Haverford administration to fob off that responsibility on us? Was it a (granted, much mellower) Quaker version of the East German system under which citizens secretly spied on each other, or did it simply underscore the vigilance necessary for one to live in a community of honor, the mistrust at the core of genuine trust?

U-Va.’s recent scandal brings this paradox to the foreground. If professors have a foolproof way of catching cheating students, then what is the point of having an honor code? And how foolproof will Bloomfield’s software prove to be anyway? Just ask America’s media conglomerates how long they honestly believe their latest encrypted music or video products will remain “secure.”

Fifteen years after graduating from Haverford, I see just how much attitudes toward education and knowledge have changed. The level of career anxiety among my students is much higher than anything I remember. The desire to become the perfect “organization kid” (as David Brooks called them in last month’s Atlantic Monthly) is keener.

Technologically, cheating has become much easier. Whereas my high school classmates and I spent long hours copying passages to represent as our own, now all it takes is a few mouse clicks. But for all the added efficiency, the difference is more one of degree than of kind. After all, copying is still copying. Cheating is still cheating. The words you present as your own either come from you or from someone else. All the technology in the world will never change that.

What has changed radically, however, is my students’ attitude toward intellectual property. Like young people throughout the ages, they are simply more sensitive than their elders to the culture’s fault lines, and the conceptual crisis concerning our assumptions about copyright and ownership. If so much information is only a click away, why shouldn’t a student cut-and-paste his way to an “A”? I can’t keep track of the number of times I have been asked whether textual citations or footnotes are “required” in research papers, often with the implication that my request was the act of a petty tyrant. And this question doesn’t come from the lazy or dishonest students (they don’t bother to ask). It comes from the conscientious, confused students who simply don’t understand what the standards for honorable work are any longer. And who can blame them? They’ve grown up listening to “free” MP3 files, studying copyrighted articles their teachers photocopy and distribute without permission, buying bootlegged videos on the street. In the “knockoff” society, everything certainly feels as if it is up for grabs.

Therefore, it is no mystery why students at places like U-Va. find themselves in a dilemma. The information genie is out of the bottle, and even the grown-ups can’t decide whether to try to put it back in, or to live with the anarchy it has created.

While these issues may sound far removed from U-Va.’s problems, I believe they are all too intimately related. Neither the Napsterization of knowledge nor the honor code scandal will be solved through technological means alone. To go down that road guarantees a never-ending “arms race.”

Rather, I’m suggesting the reverse of the Reagan/Gorbachev adage: “Trust, but don’t verify,” the assumption being that any honor code worth having should operate more as an ideal than an enforcer. Unfair? Yes. Some will cheat and get away with it. But that’s something I’m prepared to live with.

The students who violated U-Va.’s code – no less than the professors trying to thwart them – are missing the point. An honor code is not a surveillance mechanism, but a tradition that demands and expects the kind of self-scrutiny that a true scholar practices.