College Honor

To an American college the word of all words is “ truth.” “ Veritas ” is the motto of Harvard; “ Lux et Veritas ” the motto of Yale. On one of the new Harvard gates is inscribed the command from the song in Isaiah, “ Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in; ” and no better text can be found for the sons of our universities than “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”To guard the truth and to proclaim the truth are duties which the better colleges have, on the whole, honestly performed. Now and then, in the fancied opposition of religion and science, a college has preferred to guard what it believes to be one kind of truth rather than to proclaim another. “ This is not a comfortable place to teach science in,” said a young geologist who had gone from Harvard to a university in the West. “ The President says, ‘ If anybody asks questions about the antiquity of the earth, send him to me.’ ” Yet, in our older and stronger colleges at any rate, fearless investigation and free and fearless speech are the rule, even at the sacrifice of popularity and of money.

Now, whether truth be truth of religion, or of science, or of commerce, or of intercourse among fellow men, a college to stand for it must believe in it. As an institution of learning, a college must be an institution of truth ; as a school of character, it must be a school of integrity. It can have no other justification. Yet, outside of politicians and horse traders, no men are more commonly charged with disingenuousness than college presidents ; and in no respectable community are certain kinds of honesty more readily condoned than among college students. The relation of college to college, whether in a conference of professors or in a contest of athletes, is too often a relation of suspicion, if not of charge and countercharge. Intercollegiate discussion of admission requirements may have an atmosphere, not of common interest in education, but of rivalry in intercollegiate politics; and, as everybody knows, a discussion of athletics at one college frequently shows an almost complete want of confidence in the honesty of athletics at another. Yet every college would maintain steadily, and nearly every college would maintain honestly, that it stands for the truth.

When I speak of a college as believing in the truth, I mean first that its President and Faculty must be honest and fearless; but I mean more than this. I mean also that a high standard of honor must be maintained by its undergraduates ; for, far beyond the belief of most men, the standing of a college in the community and the effect of a college in the country depend on the personal character of the undergraduates. This personal character depends in a measure on the straightforwardness and the human quality of the college teachers ; but what Cardinal Newman says of intellectual development in the university is equally true of moral development:

“ When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them ; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting day by day.

“ I am but saying that that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in the course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called ; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. Thus it is that, independent of direct instruction on the part of superiors, there is a sort of self-education in the academic institutions of Protestant England; and a characteristic tone of thought, a recognized standard of judgment, is found in them, which, as developed in the individual who is submitted to it, becomes a twofold source of strength to him, both from the distinct stamp it impresses on his mind, and from the bond of union which it creates between him and others, — effects which are shared by the authorities of the place, for they themselves have been educated in it, and at all times are exposed to the influence of its ethical atmosphere.”

In any community the students of a college make a tremendous power for good or evil; and by them in college, and by them after they have left college, their college shall be judged. If, as Cardinal Newman puts it, the practical end of a university course is “ training good members of society ” (and I may add, training leaders of men), nothing can be of more importance in a university, and scarcely anything can be of more importance in a community, than the attitude of undergraduates in questions of truth and falsehood.

Those who constantly inspect this attitude find much to encourage them. The undergraduate standard of honor for college officers is so sensitively high that no one need despair of the students’ ethical intelligence. No doubt, disingenuousness is sometimes believed of the wrong man ; the upright professor with a reserved or forbidding manner mayget a name for untrustworthiness, while the honor of his less responsible but more genial colleague is unquestioned : yet the blindness here is the blindness of youthful prejudice. The nature of disingenuousness is seen clearly enough; and the recognition of it in an instructor condemns him for all time. There is indeed but one way in which a man without extraordinary personal charm may gain and keep the confidence of students: by scrupulous openness in all his dealings with them, great or small. A moment’s forgetfulness, a moment’s evasiveness, — even a moment’s appearance of evasiveness, — may crack the thin ice on which every college officer is skating as best he can ; and the necessity of keeping the secrets of less scrupulous persons may break it through. In some ways all this is healthy. A young fellow who sees a high standard of truth for anybody’s conduct may in time see it for his own. All he needs is to discover that the world was not made for him only ; and a year or two out of college should teach him that. What he lacks is not principle, but experience and readjustment. This is the lack in the average undergraduate. It is only a highly exceptional student who speaks frankly to all (college officers included) of the lies he has told in tight places, and who seems never to question an implied premise that in tight places all men lie.

Another healthy sign is the high standard of honor in athletic training. This standard, indeed, may be cruelly high. The slightest breach of training condemns a student in the eyes of a whole college, and is almost impossible to live down. Still another healthy sign is the character of the men whom, in our best colleges, the undergraduates instinctively choose as class presidents, as athletic captains, and in general as leaders. Grown men, electing a President of the United States for four years, are not always so fortunate as Harvard Freshmen, who after eight or ten weeks of college experience choose one of their own number for an office which he is practically sure to hold throughout the four college years. With few exceptions, our undergraduate leaders are straightforward, manly fellows, who will join college officers in any honest partnership for the good of one student or of all, and who shrink from any kind of meanness.

Want of a fine sense of honor appears chiefly in athletic contests, in the authorship of written work, in excuses for neglect of study, in the relation of students to the rights of persons who are not students, and in questions of duty to all who are, or who are to be, nearest and dearest. Here are the discouraging signs ; but even these are a part of that lopsided immaturity which characterizes privileged youth. It is natural, as has been said, for boys to grow like colts, one end at a time. The pity is that the boy, who determines in a measure his own growth, should be so late in developing the power to put himself into another’s place; that the best education which the country can proffer is so slow in teaching to the chosen youth of the nation the Golden Rule, or even that part of the Golden Rule which results in common honesty ; that the average college boy, frank and manly as he is, is honest in spots, and shows in his honesty little sense of proportion.

Take, for instance, that part of college life into which the average boy throws himself with most enthusiasm,— athletic sport,—and see how far our students have fallen below the ideal of honesty, how far they still remain from a clear sense of proportion. I recognize the place of strategy in athletics ; and I by no means agree with the gentleman who stigmatized a college catcher as “ up to all the professional tricks ” because “he made a feint of throwing the ball in one direction, and then threw it in another : ” yet the necessity of trusting a game to what the umpire sees is deplorable. A whole-souled and straightforward young fellow told me once, with smiling good humor, that a football player in his own college (who had everybody’s respect) owed his success in the game to a knack of holding his opponent in such a manner as made his opponent seem to hold him. Few college catchers, I suspect, systematically resist the temptation of pulling down a “ ball ” to make it look like a “strike ; ” and many cultivate skill in this sleight of hand as a cardinal point in the game. Even players who trip others, though in public they may be hissed, and in private they may be talked about as “ muckers,” are likely to remain in the team, and in some colleges may become captains (whereas a Freshman who breaks training by smoking a single cigarette may be “ queered ” for his whole college course). Many ball players use their tongues to confound or excite their adversaries ; and whole armies of students, supported by a well-meaning college press, make a business of “ rattling ” a rival team by what ought to be an inspiration, and not a weapon, defensive or offensive, — organized cheering. The youth who plays a clean game is admired, but not always followed ; and the doctrine of Mr. Henry L. Higginson and Mr. R. C. Lehmann, that a clean game comes first, and winning comes second, though it strikes undergraduates as faultless in theory and as endearing in the men who preach it, is not always suffered, in a hard game, to interfere with “ practical baseball ” or “ practical football,” — expressions used among undergraduates much as “ practical politics ” is used among men of the world.

College dishonesty in written work is hard to eradicate, because rooted in impalpable tradition, — that damaging tradition which exempts students from the ordinary rules of right living, and regards as venial, or even as humorous, acts intrinsically allied to those of the impostor, the forger, and the thief. It is incredible that a youth of eighteen should not see the dishonesty of handing in as his own work, for his own credit, a piece of writing which he has copied from a newspaper or from a book, or from the writing of a fellow student, or which he has paid another man to write for him. Nobody who can get into college is so stupid that he cannot see the lie involved. Everybody sees it clearly if the writing is for a prize, and if the fraud deprives a fellow student of his fair chance; but if a youth has spent all his available time in athletics, or in billiards, or at clubs, or at dances, or at the theatre, and if a thesis is due the next day, what is he to do ? “A man must live,” is a common cry of dishonest persons out of college ; and “ A man must get through,” is a sufficient excuse for the dishonesty of students. In talking with these dishonest students, I have been struck by two things: first, by their apparent inability to see that anybody ever has to hand in anything, and that handing in nothing is infinitely better than handing in a dishonest thing ; next, by their feeling that their own cases are exceptional, since the wrong was done “ under pressure,” — as if pressure did not account for the offenses of all amateur liars and forgers. In many students, also, there remains a trace of the old feeling that to cheat is one thing, and to cheat a teacher is another. Here is where generations of tricky schoolboys have established a practice as hard to overthrow by logic as love of country or love of liquor, — or anything else, good or bad, which depends on custom and feeling rather than on reason. We may prove that it is not honest to call a man we hate “ dear sir,” or to call ourselves his “very truly ; ” but custom sanctions it, and he expects nothing better (or worse). We know that killing harmless animals beyond what can be used as food is wanton destruction of life precious to its possessors ; but good people go on fishing and shooting. Just so, if there is a tradition that teachers are fair game, and if the leaders among boys so regard them, there is no social ostracism for dishonesty in written work. Dishonest boys admit that an instructor who should print as his own what his pupils afterwards discovered in an earlier publication by another author would be despised forever. Here, as elsewhere, the students’ standard for the Faculty is faultlessly high ; here, as elsewhere, what they need is to open their eyes to their own relative position among men, — to see that if people who cheat them are liars, they themselves, whatever their social self-complacency, are liars also if they cheat other people. I would not give the impression that most students cheat or fail to condemn cheating, or that colleges are not making steady progress toward a higher sense of honor in this matter which would be clear to a right-minded child of ten. I mean merely that, whereas outside of college (and the custom house) the act of obvious dishonesty commonly puts the man into bad repute, among undergraduates the man often brings the act into better repute by elevating it socially ; and that this is a disgrace to an institution which counts as its members the chosen youth of an enlightened country. In this matter, it is encouraging to note the feeling of the better students in Mr. Flandrau’s clever Diary of a Freshman ; yet even there the offense carries with it little or nothing of social condemnation. It is encouraging, also, to note the success of the so-called “ honor system ” in schools and colleges which have adopted it, and the ostracism of those students who have proved false to it. For myself, I cannot see why a proctor in the examination room is more than a reasonable safeguard, or why his presence there should be more offensive than that of a policeman in the street, — to a student honest and mature. It is only boys (whatever their age) who take umbrage when a man counts their change, or verifies their assertions, or audits their accounts, or refuses without security to cash their checks, or refuses to please them by testifying to what he does not know. You may believe in a boy through and through, and by showing your belief in him you may help him to be honest; but your belief in him does not warrant your official testimony that he has successfully completed a certain work, if you have no evidence but his own declaration and the silence of his fellows. Moreover, so far as my experience goes, the hotheds of cheating, where cheating thrives at all, are not the important examinations superintended by proctors, but the written “ quizzes ” in crowded classrooms, or the courses that require themes, theses, forensics, compositions in foreign languages, mathematical problems, — any kind of written work done out of the classroom ; and in all these latter cases the students, whether they know it or not, are “put on their honor.” Theoretically, though in a doubtful case I should always accept the word of a suspected student, I object to the honor system as nursing a false sensitiveness that resents a kind of supervision which everybody must sooner or later accept, and as taking from the degree some part of its sanction. If a student vouches for his own examinations, why, it has been asked, should he not sign his own diploma, and stand on his honor before the world as he has stood on it before the Faculty? Yet, practically, I am told, the honor system bids fair, where it has been adopted, “ to revolutionize the whole spirit of undergraduate intercourse with the Faculty.” It is, at any rate, as one of my correspondents says, a “ systematic endeavor by undergraduates themselves to establish a much better moral code in relation to written work,” and is therefore “ an immense moral gain in itself.” Besides, I have yet to meet a single man who has lived under the honor system (as I have not) who does not give it, in spite, perhaps, of a priori skepticism, his absolute faith. Sound or unsound, the honor system has in it signs of hope.

The notion that makeshifts and excuses in place of attendance and work are different at college from what they are elsewhere is another aspect of the tradition to which I have referred. Able-bodied youths are afflicted with diseases that admit all pleasures and forbid all duties, and if questioned closely are offended because their word is not accepted promptly and in full, even when it is obviously of little worth. The dissipation of a night brings the headache of a morning; and the student excuses himself as too sick for college work. On the day before a ball and on the day after it, a severe cold prevents a student from attendance at college exercises ; but he goes to the ball. Many undergraduates treat their academic engagements in a way that would lose them positions at any business house inside of a week ; yet no remorse affects their appetites or their sleep. In this world, by the way, it is not the just who sleep ; it is the irresponsible.

The openness with which these worthless excuses are offered is a sign that the trouble is perverted vision rather than radical moral obliquity. An ingenuous youth, prevented by a cold from going to college exercises, stood on a windy ball field one raw day in the spring, and, unabashed, coached his men before the eyes of the officer whose business it was to call him to account. Another insisted to the same officer that a mark of absence against him in a large lecture course was a mistake ; and when told that it was not, exclaimed with honest warmth, “ Then the fellow who promised to sit in my seat did n’t do it ! ” Both of these boys were blinded by the tradition which nearly all college literature has fostered, and which nothing but eternal vigilance and constant and prolonged care can destroy. It is this tradition which led a professor to say: “Students who won’t lie to an individual will lie to the College Office ; it is a soulless, impersonal thing.”

Another aspect of this same comprehensive tradition is in the enthusiasm of some Freshmen for what is called “ ragging ” signs. The word “ rag ” is, as I have said elsewhere, more local, more specific, and, when applied to our own acts or to those of our friends, less embarrassing than the word “ steal.” No doubt the college stealer of signs, whether youth or maiden, steals for fun, and has not the same motive as the common thief ; yet the motive, as I see it, is no higher. In sign-stealing we note the worst remaining flaw in college honor toward persons outside of college. The implied general proposition at the root of the act is the proposition that students’ privileges include the privilege of disregarding the rights of others ; the assumption that the world, of which so much is bestowed on them, is theirs, — to disport themselves in. Sometimes the stealing takes the form of destroying property (breaking glass, for instance) ; sometimes of robbing the very mother who shelters the robber. “ Do you remember what fun we had burning that pile of lumber in front of Matthews Hall ? ” said a middle-aged clergyman to a classmate. Yet Matthews Hall was a generous gift to the University ; and the students who destroyed the lumber were picking the pockets of a benefactor or of the Alma Mater herself. Destruction of property is often an attempt to celebrate athletic success; it is, if the phrase is pardonable, an ebullition of misfit loyalty to the college whose property is sacrificed, as if the son of a successful candidate for the presidency of the United States should celebrate his father’s victory by burning down his father’s house. Sometimes undergraduates “pinch ” bits of college property as trophies, just as modern pilgrims have shown their respect for the Pilgrim Fathers by chipping off pieces of Plymouth Rock. (There was indeed a time when the timid Freshman bought signs, to have the reputation of stealing them.) These kinds of college dishonesty are happily lessening, and are regarded as pardonable in Freshmen only, — as evidence of “ freshness ” pure and simple. That they exist at all is not merely a scandal to the good name of the college, but a menace to its prosperity. The few foolish boys who are guilty of them stand in the unthinking public mind for the noble universities which they misrepresent, until irritated tradesmen and city governments forget what the college does for the community, and view it merely as a rich corporation that escapes taxes and fills the city with insolent and dishonest youth. The irresponsibility of some students in money matters, their high - minded indignation if a tradesman to whom they have owed money for years demands it in a manner that does not meet their fancy, increases the irritation; and incalculable damage is done.

After all, the most serious aspect of college dishonesty is in the dishonesty of vice. Many persons who condemn vice believe nevertheless that it belongs with a character which, though its strength is perverted, is open and hearty ; and now and then this belief seems justified: but those who see at close range the effects of vice remember that bound up with most of it is, and must be, faithlessness to father and mother, and to the wife and children who are soon to be. College sentiment condemns habitual vice. Like the sentiment of the world at large, it is lenient (to men only) in occasional lapses from virtue, — unless a lapse involves a breach of athletic training. Here too we mark that want of proportion which characterizes undergraduate judgments of college honor. The youth who squanders in vice the money which his father (at a sacrifice) has sent him for his term bill may be a good fellow yet; the youth who breaks training is a disgrace to his Alma Mater.

In dwelling on certain kinds of college dishonesty, I have not forgotten that in some respects the college sense of honor is the keenest in the community, and that no higher ideal can be found on earth than in the best thought of our best universities. What I have pointed out must be taken as stray survivals of an intensely vital tradition, — survivals which in a democracy like our own have no right to be. The public sentiment of our colleges is becoming, year by year, cleaner and clearer-sighted. We move forward, and not slowly. What makes some persons impatient is the need of teaching to the picked young men of America that a lie is a lie, whoever tells it, and a theft a theft, whoever commits it ; and that a college student, though he gains more blessings than his neighbor, does not gain thereby the right to appropriate his neighbor’s goods. In our impatience, we forget that to teach an axiom takes years and generations if the axiom contradicts tradition ; and we forget that, when all is said, our undergraduates themselves are constantly purifying and uplifting college honor.

L. B. R. Briggs.