The severity of our “honor” is very clearly articulated during freshman week by stern-faced students who make sure the freshmen understand they aren’t messing around. To most freshmen, this isn’t news. By the time the Honor Committee came to present to my residential college my freshman year, I’d been around long enough to hear the legends — the boy forced to take a year of absence, the lacrosse player who got kicked out because she shared her notes — and I was terrified. So my peers and I bombarded these students with questions about what was and wasn’t cheating, got the specifics about what would and wouldn’t get us kicked out. These students then faded into the mist, never to be seen again.
At least, I’ve never seen them, because they scared me — and all my friends, as far as I know — into strict obedience of the code. Thanks to the horror stories that circulate, compliance with the honor system is almost universal, but for the wrong reasons. I don’t think I’m incorrect in saying the majority of us don’t cheat, but this isn’t because we’re doing what we think is right. It’s because we’re afraid of getting caught, and, above all, because we’re afraid of getting punished.
This is not the point of the Honor Code. It began as a student movement, put into place by Princetonians of an era past who cared about their honor in a way that would be considered ridiculous today. I mean, men actually used to shoot each other to defend their characters from besmirchment. Everyone thought it was something worth fighting about: After Princeton adopted the code in 1893, even the Harvard Crimson grudgingly conceded, “Better this than twenty victories at foot-ball or what-not, better than elective systems and advanced seminaries, ... now you have shown that you know what your education is for.” In 1896, a St. Louis magazine wrote, “now that the ‘honor system’ in examinations has been adopted, the Jersey College stands sans peur and sans reproche.” And, in 1895, two years after its implementation, this actually seemed to be true, according to the Princetonian, which wrote, “No more unfortunate thing can happen to a man than to be seen violating in even the slightest way the ‘Honor System of Examinations.’ ”
But the late 19th century wasn’t only a time of moral righteousness. It was also a time when men were sexists and racists and women sat around on chaise lounges fanning themselves. A Google Ngram of the word shows use of “honor” peaking in 1853 and 1898 and dropping off in the years that followed, as women, black people, poor people and immigrants started to demand equal rights. As they threw off their oppressors, they also threw off their oppressors’ beliefs, which — along with sexism, racism and other awful practices — included honor.
Now that pistol duels are no longer acceptable arbiters of character judgments, we’ve had to designate specific, quantifiable rewards or punishments for our actions, and this is why the Honor Code can’t say, “Be honest because being honest is good.” It has to speak to us in terms we understand, which goes something like this: Cheating means doing x, y and z, and if you do those things, you’ll get kicked out.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As The Princetonian wrote in April 1894, college students are “keenly sensitive to fair and upright appeals to their higher nature and value their honor far more than class standing.” For me, at least, this is where the Honor Code has actually worked. It’s taught me that a successful Princeton career won’t necessarily culminate in financial success but in the development of my own morality, which is what is most important to me and, I think, should be to everyone.
Now that the heady haze of freshman year has worn off, I keep asking myself what I’m actually doing at this school, and, I’ll tell you one thing: It’s not only to get a good job. The fact that I can articulate this at all means that, in spite of the blind terror with which I associate the word “honor,” I have become a moral thinker, concerned with being the best possible person I can be. I guess they used to call this honor; I don’t know what we should call it now. But I think that all of us — not just the freshmen — need to talk about it.
Susannah Sharpless is a sophomore from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.