Honor System

Born in ROANOKE, JOHN R.. ROBERSON is a degree candidate at the University of Virginia. This is his first appearance in the Atlantic.

EVERY University of Virginia first year man has heard of the honor system before ever coming to Charlottesville. He has heard such declarations as “The University is proudest of its honor system,” and the simple expression of confidence, “It works.” Now he and his classmates are about to meet the system face to face.

First there is a formal speech by a man chosen from among the University’s most distinguished figures, in which he discusses honor, its practice at Virginia, and what one of the speakers called “a matter less congenial to honor at Virginia" (that is to say, the procedure which is followed in the event that a breach of honor occurs).

Then the assembly is dismissed to numerous classrooms where small groups have a chance to ask questions of leaders of the student body and to sign the simple honor card saying that they understand the system and want to live under it. The questions last a long time — long enough for every person to see the system as it is: a positive force working to develop men of integrity and to bring freedom from mistrust to all of University life.

Some students sit for a long time looking at the card and thinking about it all—thinking about themselves — before they write their names on the list of the “Honor Men.” At last, when every student has accepted the honor system as his own, they are ready to register in the University.

The honor system works in the University of Virginia. The student body knows it works, and is proud to keep it working. A professor giving a quiz or examination walks into the classroom, distributes the questions, waits to see if there are any doubtful points he can clear up, and disappears. The students do the rest.

Two of them may look at each other, laugh, and ask, “How did he ever think that question up?” As the hours of the examination wear on, the seats we say Thomas Jefferson must have sat on get harder, and the strain of the exam gets worse. Under the honor system, different groups of students put down their pens and walk out of the room for a Coke and a discussion of the basketball team. Relaxed, they return to do battle with the questions.

Does that sound confusing? Distracting? It’s surprising how quietly a t bird of the class can wander in and out of the room from time to lime. At Virginia there is none of the constant irritant of a watching proctor, none of the strain of an enforced silence, none of the weariness of three hours in a hard seat. The students can put down what they know on their papers freed from any detriment to clear thinking by the pledge they sign at the end of their answers.

University honor extends beyond the purely academic. The three violations of it are cheating, stealing, and lying.

One of the warmest feelings the honor system gave me was related to stealing, or the lack of it. If a student is carrying a load of valuable textbooks and decides he wants to stroll over to the Corner (the cluster of stores and shops serving the University), there is no need for him to take the books along with him. He puts them down, and they stay where he puts them. If the sun comes out, causing him to forget that raincoat hanging on the hook outside the classroom, he can stop by for it at his convenience, with no anxiety as to its safety.

These facts do not mean that no student will be robbed while he is in Charlottesville. A deserted building or a sleeping dormitory is not magically protected from a professional burglar just because it belongs to the University. They do mean, however, that as long as students are near-by, property is safe.

The word of a student of the Universitv of Virginia is accepted as the truth. That means that any Charlottesville merchant will cash a student’s check if he has the currency to do so.

Cheating, stealing, and lying, then, are the three offenses. Smaller matters not specifically included are still ruled by the spirit of honor, each man deciding for himself what is honorable as cases arise.

Football tickets got rather scarce last fall as our team’s prospects got better and better, and good ones could have been sold at a considerable profit. The tickets slate, however, that they are void if sold for more than the printed price, and I do not know of a single student violation ol this agreement.

The system, dealing as it does with people, has its share of sadness. There are a few students who don’t trust it. I remember one boy who was very particular about banging on to his coat and books in the school Commons. Such behavior was so unusual that several of us asked him about it. We found that he had lost an overcoat, and felt that it had been stolen. Our reaction was t hat we would rather take the chance of losing something material than lose the feeling of security and confidence in humanity that living under the honor system gives us.

There are also, occasionally, the “ less congenial “ aspects of the system that the first-year men hear about, the result of the few misfits in any group of society. The Cavalier Daily arrives a black-bordered notice of such things: “The Honor Committee regrets to announce that a student has been dismissed from (this or that department). The offense was (naming it).”

The procedure, one which gives every possible chance to the accused, is something like this. If any student sees another committing what appears to be a breach of honor, he directs the attention of at least one other student to the action. If the two are agreed that there are grounds for suspicion, they confront the suspect. If he can give a satisfactory explanation, the matter goes no further; if not, the accusers present the case to the President of the Honor Committee.

This committee consists of the student president of each department of the University, plus the vice-president of the department of the accused — a court of students deciding for the students. The tribunal holds a closed trial in the Moot Courtroom of the Law School, allowing the defendant to have any student he chooses to assist in his defense, and any witnesses he wants in his behalf. If the accused is acquitted, the records of the trial are burned and handshakes are exchanged all around. If he is convicted, he leaves the University at once, and the nameless notice appears in the Cavalier Daily. Any person who can show that he has new evidence on the case can cause it to he reopened at any time. Otherwise the records stay secret.

The black-bordered notices appear rarely at the University. They always bring a look of concern to the faces of all the readers. The student body is depressed to find that there are some who cannot meet its standard, but at the same time satisfied to know that that standard is being maintained.

Honor is a tradition at Virginia; one of the intangibles of which she is proud, and for which she is renowned. It is being maintained.