Monday, December 28, 2009


I went to a school in the South which has an honor code. No lying, cheating or stealing. It's an honor code violation not to turn in anyone committing an honor violation. The single sanction is discharge from school.

I am against honor codes. They institute great uncertainty into the mores of practical folks, and institute a reign of terror, in my estimation, because they set the bar at the personal standard of the most stringent interpretation of "honor" by its most zealous advocate. Lost in this is the notion of "prosecutorial discretion."

In the realm of ordinary affairs, offenses pass a number of preliminary barriers before they appear before the ultimate arbiter, a court of law, where they become fully vetted. First, though, a policeman, or injured consumer, decide if the "offense" (jaywalking, or a dinged car door) is worth pursuing. Only then is it passed up the food chain. We all have a sliding scale of values for this--a tiny pock on the bumper earns the culprit a glare, a dent in the quarter panel elicits an exchange of insurance information (the "referral"). But no one lives in fear that their de minimis standard in ignoring a "violation" will earn them a trip before the tribunal and ultimate ejection from the system.

In honor code environments, cheaters go on cheating but take greater care not to get caught. They can actually thrive in the atmosphere of elevated, but not necessarily warrantedly so, sense of trust. Practical folks maintain a low level of anxiety that their common sense attitudes in how they go about their business, either through omissions or commissions, could come to the attention of zealots with stringent, rigid or tortured idealism, who would feel duty-bound to turn them in to the honor board for potential application of the ultimate (and only) sanction.


Danielle said...

Is there something that inspired this post?

peter said...

Danielle, college app essays inspired this. I have a friend with a relative who is applying to colleges. Or rather, the child's parent is. Because apparently no child writes college admission essays anymore, their parents (or paid professionals) do. This apparently ties up the entire month of December for adults with 17 year-old children. It's wild to me; my parents never saw a word of any of my college applications. (But then again, I went to CU from a premiere Eastern boarding school, so obviously I "don't get it.")

Anyway, this friend said one essay called for commentary on that school's honor code. Something feel good about the inmates running the asylum no doubt. Alhough the child wasn't writing this 250 words, so far as I could figure, he balked at the adult content being proposed.

I proposed an alternative view about honor codes to my friend, for guidance for the child. I said I'd render my opinion into four paragraphs. Here it is. It's how I feel about handing the keys over to the children, actually. (Read Lord of the Flies.) I love honorable people. I dislike honor codes.