DONG: Honor without a code

“If cheating is not allowed, the test is not fair!”

On June 8, 2013, the last day of the college entrance examination in China, thousands of angry parents besieged the Zhongxiang No. 3 High School in Hubei Province and harassed test monitors who tried to crack down on cheating in the most important annual test in China. For these parents and children, cheating had little to do with honor: it was simply crucial for survival.

In my high school — one of the best in China — I saw that some students cheated for fun rather than survival. Many saw cheating as an adventure: they took prolonged trips to the bathroom during exams to look up the answers on their cell phones, or whispered to their classmates while taking tests. These acts were not considered shameful; instead, cheaters were glorified by tales of their successes.

Cheating is a worldwide phenomenon, even in schools like Yale and Harvard. The Harvard Crimson recently surveyed members of their class of 2017 and came up with appalling numbers: 10 percent of respondents admitted to cheating on an exam before college, 17 percent said they had cheated on a take-home assignment or paper and 42 percent confessed to having done so on a homework assignment or problem set. It may be hard for some to believe that a considerable percentage of students selected by one of the greatest institutions has cheated in school. But for me, it doesn’t seem that surprising. I learned through my observations in China how cheating can be just like underage drinking and promiscuity: it’s wrong, but it’s exciting — some enjoy the process, and others depend on it for survival.

Harvard is considering implementing an honor code, hoping to encourage a cultural shift away from cheating. But since some cheaters seek not only good grades but also adventure and glory, they cannot be deterred by an honor code alone. When students cheat for the thrill of it, honor does not matter — they want to do something dishonorable, to rebel against the system. An honor code instructing them in why cheating is immoral would only reinforce the thrill of rebellion.

Dean Mary Miller recently said Yale is not considering implementing an honor code. “Students have agreed by matriculation to abide by the rules,” she told the News. Dean Miller’s explanation is spot-on. All of the principles in an honor code should already be covered by the University’s undergraduate regulations; it is superfluous for an institution that effectively enforces the rules.

Aside from being superfluous, honor codes can do damage in failing to prepare students for the real world. It is dangerous if an honor code becomes the only thing that prevents students from cheating. “Because I have signed the honor code, I cannot cheat on exams” may be a sound thought process to deter cheating in college, but after graduation when there is no honor code, what will hold an individual back from cheating on his taxes?

The idea of an honor code more or less reflects the concept of collectivism: one should behave ethically as a measure of respect to others, one’s classmates or peers. This idea works within a small community like a university campus. But it does not guarantee that students will behave when they graduate, because it does not convey a real sense of the wrongs of cheating. When a student cheats, he does damage not only to his peers but also to himself and to the system at large. A student should not avoid cheating solely because that is the code of conduct in his community — he should simply realize that it is inherently wrong.

If an honor code is superficial and superfluous, then what is an effective way to prevent cheating? First of all, tests should not be battlegrounds for survival. The Chinese college entrance examination is an extreme example of survival testing — that exam can be the sole determining factor of a person’s life and future opportunities. If tests become too significant in the overall evaluation of a student’s performance, cheating will become almost inevitable.

Students should realize that testing is a means, not an end. The goal of taking an exam is to learn, not to get a good grade, so only an honest result is meaningful. Academic honesty not only ensures fairness, but also encourages meaningful learning. No matter how one feels about a test, being honest is always the right choice. Students don’t need a college honor code to know that’s true.

Yifu Dong is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu.

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