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Let’s talk about the Honor Code

There’s a maddening culture of competition on this campus. It’s the least you can expect at such a school, but it definitely creates a sense of overwhelming stress for many students. Tragically, this often leads to mental health problems. Behind of this stress and competition, the Honor Code plays a distinguishable role.

When students begin a test and sign it with that memorable statement, “I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination,” not all realize the tradition dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. It is a tradition heavily embedded within the fabric of this University, like so many others, and so it is upheld and regarded with a sense of unwavering respect.

And that’s why it’s kept in place. There’s no determinable way we can know the Honor Code is the best system to prevent cheating. It’s a tradition, and I fully respect that, which is why I am not calling for its removal, but instead its revision.

There’s a point where we should ask ourselves if the Honor Code is too harsh. If found guilty, the Honor Committee suspends students for a whole year, and more importantly, leaves the student’s offense on permanent record. This is on the first offense.

I’m not so comfortable knowing that if I see cheating on a test, I am mandated to report the individual. Yes, I know it is all to uphold academic integrity, and that in not reporting I am willingly violating the Code, but let me rephrase it: I’m not comfortable knowing that if I see cheating, I might have to ruin someone’s life.

And neither are other students, which is why most don’t report offenses. In a 2009 survey from The Daily Princetonian, it was found that out of 85 students who consciously saw cheating, only four reported it. The reality is that most students aren’t comfortable with the burden this part of the Honor Code represents because they’re aware that their decisions can actually hurt other students for the worst.

In other words, the Honor Code’s vision for perfect academic integrity is routinely violated because, alarmingly, some students actually have empathy for others. They realize that cheating may be immoral, but so would be subjecting another student to the stress and pain of a permanent offense and a one-year suspension.

Another side to the issue is the idea of how collaboration often conflicts with the Honor Code. We are told since day one here that collaboration and teamwork are encouraged values, and yet we live in constant fear that a single line of shared code will result in a heart-stopping email from the committee. The line between collaboration and suspension is markedly blurred.

And, to what degree are we sure that the severity of the punishment actually lowers rates of cheating? There’s absolutely no evidence showing that our specific version of the Honor Code actually results in less cheating.

Particularly in law, there’s just no proof that increasing the severity of a punishment lowers crime. The “War on Drugs” stands as a testament to this. Declaring a substance illegal and cranking up the punishment simply doesn’t have to correlate with a decrease in drug use.

If we were to, for example, make the punishment for a first offense an expulsion, would that result in less cheating? Maybe it would, but as pointed out previously, even fewer students would feel comfortable with reporting cheating, because the burden would feel even heavier.

So maybe it wouldn’t hurt to rethink the severity of the punishment. The concept that I, as a student, have the binding duty of policing others and potentially ruining their futures baffles me. I don’t stand for cheating, but I can’t fathom the idea that, in reporting, I might send a student straight into depression, or tragically, to something worse.

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This leads me to my final point. This campus has a mental health problem, as we are constantly reminded. Part of it is the stress, the competition, the pressure. Would it be far-fetched to ask ourselves if the Honor Code’s severity plays a role in our mental health problem?

I for one think that, to a frightening extent, it does. A tradition or not, as it stands right now the Honor Code is by no means perfect. I welcome with open arms any conversation concerning its revision.

Jan Domingo Alsina is a freshman from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached