“What is Honor? A word. What is in that word ‘honor’? What is that ‘honor’? Air.” So decries Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. In the play, Falstaff stands alone in his dismissal of honor, but on our campus, it seems that we’ve wholeheartedly embraced the Fallstafian position. While our peer institutions — Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and others — proudly tout their honor codes, pledges memorized by every student and printed on every examination, Yale has no unifying document concerning academic integrity, no snappy statement recited before our exams and no student-elected panel that adjudicates honor infractions. We ought to.
Many believe such a document to be redundant; after all, we already have a section dedicated to Academic Integrity in the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, the 86-page document that governs life at Yale. In a 2013 statement to the News, then-Dean of Yale College Mary Miller dismissed the possibility of an honor code, saying “quite honestly, we expect nothing less than academic honesty … Students have agreed by matriculation to abide by the rules.” Nevermind that Dean Miller’s statement ignores the reality of cheating at Yale (in last year’s YDN survey, 1-in-7 respondents admitted to at least one instance of academic dishonesty); it misses the point. Sure, an honor code may be, as Falstaff notes, just a collection of words. But this mere collection of words reframes the way academic integrity is viewed on campus.
Without an honor code, Yale presents honor as an extrinsic good that is to be valued because it allows no single student to gain an unfair advantage. With an honor code, schools like Princeton present honor as an intrinsic good, something that ought to be upheld simply because it’s the right thing to do. While the distinction might seem trivial, it offers a valuable insight into how Yalies view honor and their peers.
Our lack of an honor code isn’t a mere oversight of the administration; it’s symptomatic of a larger failure in Yale’s student body. Quite frankly, many Yalies seem to value the wrong things — we prioritize engagement over ethical behavior, ambition over compassion and intelligence over just about everything else. Think about how often we comment on someone’s intelligence, their ambition or their aptitude without first speaking about their character, their integrity or how they treat others. In his Discourse on Arts and Sciences, Rousseau laments the plight of his modern age: “the question is no longer whether a man is honest, but whether he is clever … there are a thousand prizes for fine discourses, and none for good actions.” Rousseau’s words were a biting critique of 18th-century France, but at Yale in 2019, his words retain their sting.
I don’t mean to say that Yalies are immoral. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. In my time at Yale, I’ve found my peers, from my close friends to the strangers I bump into at Bass Cafe, to be overwhelmingly kind, caring and morally upstanding. In short, people here are good — we just don’t seem to give this behavior the esteem it deserves.
With that being said, Yale’s lack of an honor code makes perfect sense. If it’s only our aptitude and ambition that matter, academic integrity exists merely to create an even playing field in the classroom. It prevents any “unworthy” student from attaining an artificially high GPA, and by extension, a more prestigious summer internship, research grant or post-graduation job. It hurts us on the curve. This is exactly the wrong way to think about honor, and it stems directly from the warped standards by which we evaluate our peers. It ignores the fact that, even in a vacuum, in an imaginary place where nobody is ever disadvantaged by the act of cheating, the very act itself is still wrong.
A healthier campus can only come by putting our fetish for engagement, achievement and intelligence in its place. In this world, the extrinsic benefits of academic honesty are subordinate to the fundamental value inherent in upholding one’s own sense of honor. In essence, that’s what an honor code enshrines in writing: the elevation of character over achievement. And personally, I think that’s something we should encourage here at Yale.
Falstaff couldn’t be more wrong. Honor is so much more than a word: it’s a fundamental reorganization of our values — one that would emphasize what’s really important and would make our campus a better place.
JOHN KLINGLER is a sophomore in Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .