Does Harvard Need an Honor Code?

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Harvard, the oldest and most prestigous institution of higher education in the United States, has never been famous for the virtue of its students. (Remember The Social Network? Kaavya Viswanathan? Marc Stuart Dreier?) But in the wake of several cheating scandals — in particular, the enormous cheating ring discovered in Harvard's "Introduction to Congress" course — a bunch of Harvardians are calling for a formal honor code that, once implemented and signed by students, would somehow discourage students from cheating, plagiarizing, or otherwise tarnishing the good name of Harvard. Here's why that might, but probably won't, work.

Honor codes vary by college, and remain pretty rare among schools of Harvard's size and focus.  The colleges which have them, or at least those which emphasize them, tend to be Southern and stress tradition, of which the honor code itself is usually an integral part. The Virginia Military Institute furnishes a good example: students there have followed its strict honor codewhich instructs them not to lie, cheat, or steal — since the military academy was founded in 1839. That's not to say Harvard's peers lack honor codes. As the Associated Press pointed out in August 2012, when the allegations of cheating first emerged, Princeton and Dartmouth, both of which are known for their undergraduate focus, do have honor codes, whereas Harvard — home of Harvard Law and Harvard Business School — does not, and never has.

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Harvard's lack of an honor code, and the sense of tradition that accompanies it, raises a vexing question: Can you retrofit an honor code onto a school that has never had one? The difficulty here is not so much logistical as cultural; after all, other schools, like Bucknell, have adopted new honor codes that weren't part of the school's prior tradition. But Harvard's tradition — of academic excellence, certainly, but also material success and fame — is arguably deeper than any other collegiate tradition. The only reason Harvard would adopt an honor code would be to change its culture, and it's unclear if actual students, who by virtue of attending Harvard are at least somewhat onboard with its emphasis on success, actually want to declare that something is wrong with the way students go after what they want, however ethically ambiguous it may be.

Which is to say that Harvard's administration isn't simply hoping to tamp down on cheating; they're also trying to change the way its students operate. Seen in that light, it might be a bit easier to understand why an honor code has never really caught on at Harvard, where it's been repeatedly proposed but never actually implemented. And even if an honor code were implemented, it's difficult to see how it would meaningfully alter Harvard's culture, at least at first. Nearly every well-known, successful honor code — like that of Harvard's peer, Princeton — has existed for decades, often centuries. The appeal of an honor code, after all, is that others have followed it, and at Harvard that obviously — obviously — won't be the case.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.