Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/February 1906/The Honor System in American Colleges




A CRITIC who was fond of unusual statements once declared that ignorance and unconsciousness are the best tests of good health. The man whose digestive powers are unimpaired has no conclusive evidence of his possession of a stomach. Hunger may be referred to as an aching void, but the discomfort is not localized until the digestive machinery gets out of order and pain tells the victim that in some way he has abused an internal friend whose unknown presence has been a source of quiet serenity.

In American educational circles the honor system in colleges has been a subject of discussion only since the close of the civil war. Prior to that time, like the unobtrusive stomach, it had long performed its function peacefully in some parts of our land, while the general public was ignorant of its existence. Of late years there has been enough internal disturbance to suggest the presence of a collegiate organ that demands recognition.

It is not possible to say just when or where the honor system had its birth. It had indeed no birth, but was merely a manifestation of social conditions at the south. During recent years the annual catalogues of the University of Virginia have contained the statement that in June, 1842, after the system of surveillance in written examinations had been found ineffectual, Judge Henry St. George Tucker, professor of law, induced the faculty to adopt the following resolution:

That in all future written examinations for distinction and other honors of the university each candidate shall attach to the written answers presented by him on such examination a certificate in the following words: I, A. B., do hereby certify on honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatever, whether oral, written, or in print, in giving the above answers.

The editor of the catalogue adds 'this was the beginning of the honor system.' Such a conclusion is warrantable if understood to mean that this was probably the first formal adoption of a college code of examination ethics that had been previously in existence without formal legislation. The South Carolina College has within the present year celebrated the centennial anniversary of its organization, which occurred twenty years before the incorporation of the University of Virginia. In a sermon delivered on January 8, 1905, the chaplain of the college, Dr. Flinn, declares that 'in the very beginning of the history of the college the honor system of student control was established.' He quotes a by-law, formulated by the trustees of the college, certainly within a few years after its organization and published from year to year, in which the essential principle of the honor system is set forth in these words:

The sense of decency, propriety and right, which every honorable young man carries in his own bosom, shall be taken as a sufficient means of knowing these things, and he who pleads ignorance in such matters is unfit to be a member of the college.

No one of the present generation can properly make any definite statement as to the universality of the honor system in our institutions of learning a century ago, or even a half century ago, but in most of our older southern colleges tradition seems to indicate that it has long been in force.

It is easy to understand why southern colleges should have been the natural home of the honor system. The distinguishing characteristics of southern civilization a few generations ago made it to a large extent spontaneous. Education was not deemed a necessity for all, but rather a privilege belonging to those who could claim, either actually or prospectively, the title of gentleman. A young man went to college not with a view to preparing for a special vocation in life, but because a liberal education was generally regarded as the indispensable badge of the gentleman. Elective courses were unknown. Latin, Greek, mathematics and moral philosophy were studied by all and mastered by few. To be recognized as a scholar was a high honor, and those who achieved it felt a pride in their ability to quote from Seneca or Homer in the original. The son of a gentleman was taught to despise deceit. Cheating was naturally to be expected among traders and day laborers, but these could not be expected to study Seneca or Homer, to seek the scanty knowledge of astronomy and botany that was offered as science, chiefly with a view to its bearing on natural theology, or to appreciate and analyze the evidences of Christianity on which every college-bred gentleman was required to stand examination before receiving the degree of bachelor of arts.

We have no special ground for thinking that human nature has ever been very different from that of to-day, and the college classes from which our grandfathers were graduated must not be invested with any halo of sanctity. Neither virtue nor vice belongs more to one generation than another, whatever may be the color of the telescope glasses through which we look back at our ancestors. There is no reason to suppose that manners and morals were any better a century ago than to-day. The advance in civilization suggests the presumption of improvement, but morality, as well as knowledge, is relative; and offenses change in importance with the lapse of years. Whatever may be the gains that we have made otherwise, the obligation to avoid cheating in the college examination room was certainly more insisted upon by southern students prior to the civil war than it is to-day in the country at large. Custom and tradition had established a standard that every son of a gentleman felt it his privilege and duty to maintain. To violate this unwritten law was perilous for the young man whose home training had been defective. The temptation to cheat might be strong, but to incur the contempt of his fellow students was a risk that could not be lightly undertaken.

The firm establishment of such a code of college honor at the south was undoubtedly an outcome and manifestation of the extreme conservatism characteristic of that section during the period when communication with other parts of the world was very limited. It antedates the railroad and telegraph. Travel was restricted, and local customs were correspondingly fixed. Similar restriction existed, perhaps to a less extent, at the north; but at the south the institution of slavery had established class distinctions in society which were more sharply defined than was possible where the population was almost confined to a single race. The southern college was completely dominated by a single social class. The upheaval and confusion, the impoverishment and chaos due to political destruction and reconstruction, were not sufficient to extinguish at once the college traditions established by an aristocracy that retained its pride after its wealth had been annihilated. The honor system was cherished as a heritage to be proud of, one that was inseparably linked with the traditions of the lost cause.

Forty years have not been enough to efface the influence of these college traditions at the south. At the north they had never been established. This statement does not imply that the ethical code customarily in force among northern students was inferior to that at the south. It means that certain actions were forbidden by student opinion in the one section and deemed permissible by student opinion in the other, such opinion being in each case determined chiefly by local precedent. Political fealty and church affiliation are well known to be determined more frequently by prescription rather than by argument. It would be remarkable if student opinion were more judicial. The differences of opinion between a democrat by inheritance and a republican by inheritance are certainly no greater than between southern and northern students in their traditional views about the honor system. Neither side has a monopoly of virtue.

The present writer was reared amid influences where the honor system was dominant, receiving his baccalaureate degree in South Carolina. During college days on one occasion he took part in a mass meeting of students held for the investigation of a supposed breach of the honor system. The questions to be used in a written examination had been printed, and an unpopular student was accused of securing a copy from the printer on the night before examination. Conviction would have implied his expulsion by demand of the student body. The ground of complaint was not so much that the use of the questions would be unjust to fellow students as that the action alleged was characteristic of a sneak unfit to associate with gentlemen, and involved the culprit's signature to a false statement that his answers were written without aid. The accusation was based on circumstantial evidence alone and could not be sustained. The trial was necessary in the interest of the defendant, whose accusers were fellow students. So long as there exists such a jealous demand on the part of students that cheating shall not be tolerated in any form, direct or indirect, college authorities are abundantly safe in allowing them self-government.

But all cases are not so simple as the one just cited, nor is popular sentiment usually so pronounced as to secure the prosecution of offenders. Indeed the honor system is no longer a characteristic of any one section of the country. In the same institution of learning it may be trusted during one year and found wanting during another. College tradition has been perceptibly weakened during forty years. Ideals of education have been revolutionized, and it would be extraordinary if ideals of college honor should not be subject to gradual modification. The assumptions that once served as the foundation of the honor system can no longer be accepted without reservation, and the administration of such a system must be modified to suit changed conditions. It may be instructive to inquire briefly into these changes.

The southern college is no longer under the control of the social class that was in power when the honor system became established as a fact without being known as a system. With the establishment of public education at the south the classical academies have been dying out, one by one, and their places taken by the public high schools of the cities. The spirit of inherited aristocracy has been gradually disappearing, and with it are vanishing the home ideals that were formerly carried to the college. Population has grown, and the diffusion of elementary education, though still far from complete, is much better than it was a generation ago. Young men no longer come to college to receive the badge of respectability. They come to secure as directly as possible what they hope to utilize in the approaching competition with the world for a living. The testimonial of scholastic success is a baccalaureate or professional degree, the value of which depends upon the reputation of the college. Culture for the sake of culture, training for the avowed purpose of mental gymnastics, the pursuit of science for the love of knowledge and the desire to add to the sum of human ideas, have their advocates still, especially in the universities; but to the great majority of students such motives are foreign. The greatest stimulus to effort is success, and the love of conquest in competition will continue indefinitely to incite students to activity in apparent disregard of utilitarian ends; but with all due allowance for this well-known fact in human nature, popular ideals have changed to such an extent that the maintenance of the honor system must be based on a foundation different from that which maintained it during its early development.

A college degree involves an expenditure of much labor, and often of money that the student can ill afford. In preparing for his examinations he is at times compelled to grapple with topics that are unattractive, subjects that would be sedulously disregarded if they were not prescribed as requisites for the degree sought. If credit can be secured for success without full payment in labor, if deception can be practised for the avoidance of irksome tasks, is such procedure different from current practise in the world of business? Can the student be expected to rise in the college class-room above the ordinary standards of honor in society, in the street or on the athletic field? If the most conspicuous leaders in politics, the organizers of great business corporations, the presidents of railroads and insurance companies, grow rich and prosperous by taking advantage of their opportunities to appropriate unearned dividends, to concentrate on the favored few what belongs to the unprotected multitude, is it remarkable that a student under temptation should profit by such lessons and make the best of an opportunity to win an unearned degree, or secure unearned credit for an examination by misrepresentation? The honor system in college is merely an application of the standards of Washington and Jefferson and Lee in political life. If such standards are too antiquated and simple for twentieth-century politics and finance, nothing can maintain them in the twentieth-century college.

But the honor system is not yet extinguished, hopeless as may be the outlook for it in some quarters. Its existence in any institution of learning is possible only where the demand comes from the majority of the students rather than from the faculty. If such a demand is based on local tradition alone it is doomed to inevitable extinction. No tradition can survive in opposition to the consensus of contemporary thought and feeling. But it has its reason for existence, quite aside from tradition, in the sense of justice and fair play. The majority of young men under normal conditions are disposed to uphold what they conceive to be just. In general society penal laws are necessary to restrain criminals, and the criminal is the exception. The college criminal who cheats in the performance of college duties is found in every college, but he too is exceptional. If he and his friends are so active as to necessitate penal laws that imply hardship to the student body as a whole, the majority have a right to demand the expulsion of the offender.

It was under such conditions as these that the honor system was adopted at Princeton about a dozen years ago. It was introduced likewise at Cornell University, at Amherst, Williams and other northern colleges. At Princeton it is reported to be still giving satisfaction, although there have been occasional spasms of apparent weakness. In the other institutions named it seems never to have become very deeply rooted. Its maintenance, as well as its introduction, required organization among the students and tact on the part of those whose duty it was to teach and examine. There seems to be a growing feeling that the honor system, even if exotic, ought to be encouraged if students can be induced to adopt it; that self-government is the best government if it is only real government. But where no supporting tradition already exists on such a subject it is as hard to make reliable calculations on the stability of student opinion as on the magnitude of political majorities.

For the introduction of the honor system into any institution of learning, or for its subsequent efficiency, the first essential is the organization of a college court, composed of leading representatives from the most important classes or departments. The efficiency of such a court depends upon the earnestness and watchfulness of a small minority of the student body who are public spirited enough to endure temporary inconvenience and to risk their personal popularity by reporting those who offend against the laws adopted by the student body. If there are never any indictments there can be no need for a court. Since the college world is not wholly made up of angels, it is absolutely certain that offenses will be committed. If nobody is willing to act as prosecutor or complainant the law becomes a dead letter, and the court dies a natural death. But such a court should be organized in every college and its vitality should be tested by actual practise. To its jurisdiction should be committed all cases of crookedness in class or examination or in anything else that affects the welfare of the student body. If a young man shows to his fellow-students that he is dishonest outside of the class-room, it is not necessary that the enforcement of the honor system should be limited to matters connected with written examinations. The voice of the student body should be heard even if it be not always judicial. The student court should indeed not be a court of last resort. Its rulings should be subject to examination by an appellate court consisting of the president and a committee of the faculty of the institution. The right of appeal to this supreme court should never be yielded, but such appeal should not be demanded unless strong reasons for it can be established.

Even if a good student court has been organized, the maintenance of the honor system may be and often is nullified by the unwillingness of students to inform against the violators of law. This indeed is the greatest difficulty to be overcome in practise. A student whose mental ability is limited, but who is conspicuous in athletics and personally popular, yields to temptation in the examination room, or otherwise resorts to fraud in order to win scholastic credit. He is shielded by the members of his fraternity, and their influence is such as to prevent his indictment before the college court even if his offense is repeated several times. At last he is caught by some professor through internal evidence in an examination paper. He denies his guilt and his friends join him in the effort to make conviction impossible. The evidence is overwhelming and he must go. The loss of a leader on the athletic field is bewailed as a calamity to the athletic interests of the college, and a stay is secured on some technicality by which the dishonest athlete is retained until the close of the football or baseball season. He then goes, not in disgrace, but with every manifestation of regret on the part of admiring friends. Resentment is felt and openly expressed against the tactless professor whose abnormal conscience has made him expose the athlete's moral weakness. Of what importance is scholastic accuracy in comparison with victory in athletics? Why can not professors exercise more common sense and overlook the shortcomings of those whose athletic success advertises the college among young men more in one day than the professors can do in a year? Is college spirit to be disregarded in deference to out-of-date aphorisms about telling the truth? Has a student no right of mental reservation in signing an examination pledge when he has been unselfishly giving to athletics most of the time needed to prepare for examination? It is all well enough to insist upon the honor system when competing for honors, but why not give a chance to the fellow who wants merely to stay in college, to shine in young society and to help support all college enterprises?

The dominance of athletics as a factor in college life constitutes to-day one of the most serious obstacles to the maintenance of the honor system in colleges. The difficulty of maintaining clean athletics is notorious. So strenuous is the demand for victory that honor must go if it is accompanied with the danger of defeat. The Jesuitic claim that the end justifies the means is continually made under various forms of disguise, and its reacting influence on the ethics of the classroom is inevitable. In an institution where the honor system is in force the football team is made up of young men whose examination pledges are respected. But in an intercollegiate match this team is called upon to meet competitors from a distance, and the code of ethics is changed to provide for the trickery and disguised professionalism in which the strangers are known to indulge. The honor system is reserved for application at home, but elsewhere the athletic organism must adapt itself to its environment. Cheating becomes allowable because it has been found impossible to exclude it from athletic contests. If the devil must be fought it is soon agreed that he shall be fought with fire. The honor's system has no place in intercollegiate athletics. Even some of the most ardent advocates of athletics admit despairingly that honesty in athletics can no longer be expected. Trickery and ruffianism are admitted to be necessary for victory. If such is the practical athletic code, familiarity with its working must inevitably affect the athlete's ideals in all cases where his interests are to be affected. If dishonesty is right in the collective struggle for victory it is but a short step to the conclusion that it is equally right in the individual struggle for a pass in examination. The claim is openly made in some colleges that the student is perfectly justified in cheating to win a pass mark, but should not cheat in a contest for honors.

The influence of intercollegiate athletics, and other influences that are obtrusive in politics and business, have already had a noticeable effect on the honor system among southern students. Taking the south as it exists to-day, the hold of the honor system in a few institutions is yet strong; in others precarious; and in still others quite non-existent. It would be easy, but not appropriate, to fortify this statement by mentioning concrete cases and giving names. Where the college is old, and especially if it is situated in a village or small city, the maintenance of tradition and of well-defined unwritten laws relating to student life is comparatively easy. If it is situated in a large city the relative importance of the college in comparison with other interests in the community is dwarfed, and the commercial spirit of the age is quite sure to become dominant. No well-defined code of college ethics can become established where the majority of the students meet only in class-room or laboratory, and where they are merged during the hours of study and recreation amid tens of thousands of people who never think of the college as a living organism with a recognized collective character. Young men who become enrolled in city colleges must be expected to exemplify the business ethics of the city. Among them will be found many individuals of high moral tone, as worthy of trust in the examination room as in the parlor. Fraternities and social cliques may be formed, but usually no general code of college ethics can become crystallized under the conditions of city life.

The conditions that are favorable and those that are detrimental to the maintenance of the honor system among students may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. The difficulty is least in small towns and greatest in large cities, as just set forth.

2. The difficulty is least with the most advanced students and greatest with freshmen. The advanced student has a well-defined purpose in view and appreciates the fact that his own interests are bound up with the actual mastery of the subject in which he is working. The young student is just from a preparatory school where probably he has been thoroughly imbued with the idea that the chief object of his teachers is to impose tasks and limit his personal liberty. He feels a certain degree of exultation in 'getting ahead' of those whose duty it is to be vigilant, and he carries this spirit to the college. The temptation to cheat continues as long as fetters exist, whether actually or in his imagination.

3. The difficulty is least where there is the greatest freedom in the election of courses of study, and greatest where a fixed curriculum is maintained with a high standard for graduation. The existence of a curriculum implies rigidity. The student must endure much arduous labor because it is prescribed. He may be informed that it will do him much good in due time, but he is skeptical, and cheating is the most natural resource.

4. The difficulty is observed to be greater in technical and professional schools than in those where much of the work is avowedly for the sake of culture. In the technical school the cost to the student is high. He wishes to begin applying his acquisitions to the work of self-support as soon as possible. To fail in an examination may mean the spending of many hundreds of dollars extra, and the loss of a year of valuable time from remunerative employment. He regards the entire subject from a commercial standpoint and treats it as such.

The most conspicuous tendency in America of late years has been toward the substitution of urban activity for rural quiet. Urban standards are increasingly established in all the more prosperous institutions of learning outside of the cities. The gradual extinction of the honor system in colleges, as we understand this term to-day, seems, therefore, inevitable. Such a conclusion, though unwelcome, is not wholly pessimistic. The honor system where it now exists should be carefully guarded and everything possible should be done to encourage self-government in colleges, to develop the feeling of responsibility among the students for the integrity of the degrees conferred by the institution with which they are identified. The reputation of the college suffers irreparable injury if the public has reason to believe that its degrees are won by fraud. But in general society the honor system has its substitute in the unwritten code maintained by people of refinement and social culture. When interests clash or crime is committed recourse is had to the law of the land, and well known rules of legal procedure are applied. By the general public a man of honor is recognized as such after his habits of speech and action have been manifested and his character has become thus established. Whatever may be the differences of standard professed, college ethics will be conformed to the ethics of general society. Every student should be at least provisionally assumed to be a man of honor; and he should be treated as such so long as his conduct warrants the assumption. In the great majority of cases his word can be accepted, just as this is done in polite society. But to make the rule universal, because the honor system is in force in a college, secures the most convenient cloak possible for the perpetration of fraud by the unprincipled student who knows that his denial of guilt will be promptly accepted. If a lie is convenient why not utilize it when no obstacle to self-interest is interposed by conscience? The acceptance of his word should be subject to modification by other kinds of evidence just as it is in every court of justice. No rule can be laid down regarding the discrimination between students who are reliable and those who are unfit to be trusted. The trickster should be distrusted until he is eliminated, but tact and discretion are needed in dealing with him. He is found in every community, and he should not receive the protection implied in treating all students as men of honor.

Let the honor system be maintained and applied to all who prove themselves fit to receive its benefits. College interests will sometimes clash, and college crimes will occasionally be committed, proving that some students are not gentlemen. If changes in the present administration of the honor system become developed they should be chiefly in regard to the rules of legal procedure. Let the college court be maintained and trusted so long as students manifest the disposition to make it really efficient. An honor system conducted in accordance with the rules of legal evidence will not secure perfection; but college ethics a century hence will be at least as good as to-day, and better adapted to changed conditions than if manufactured according to the prescription of the wisest of contemporary prophets.