“Is the honor code really necessary?” “What difference will it make?” “Do the student councils honestly believe that it will stop college students who intend to cheat from cheating?”
These are some of the skeptical questions I have heard from my classmates regarding the implementation of the honor code. Last semester, in the midst of a rather drawn-out conflict between the Columbia College Student Council (which spearheaded the proposal) and the Engineering Student Council (which rescinded its vote of approval), I too couldn’t help but ask myself and my peers: Why an honor code now? Columbia has existed for over 250 years, successfully maintaining its reputation as a college of the highest academic excellence, without an honor code. However, last year’s wide-scale cheating scandal at Harvard helps us to understand the pressing problem of academic dishonesty rampant within colleges.
In a time of effortlessly easy access to an enormous amount of information on the Internet, it has become easier to use someone’s words and ideas as one’s own. Furthermore, in an academically rigorous environment where every college student knows what it means to feel overwhelmed (by work, studying, and extracurricular activities), academic dishonesty seems to have become the initial method of dealing with such stress. While most of us wouldn’t respond by committing extreme acts of academic dishonesty (such as paying someone to write our essay), many of us engage in acts of questionable academic integrity without realizing it. I know some classmates who copy problem set answers from their friends and the Internet, store formulas in their calculator, and look up answers on their phones during bathroom breaks—practices that are clearly not honest, but often not overtly cheating. In recent years, there seems to have been a significant rise in incidents of cheating and plagiarism. This raises the question: How can the honor code do anything about preventing cheating?
It is almost foolish to believe that the honor code would be the panacea to academic dishonesty. Instead, supporters of the honor code hope to change the very culture of cheating that has been ingrained in our minds. Small changes in perception can lead to good outcomes, notably in the cleaning up of graffiti. In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that something as trivial as the presence of graffiti invites a cascade of vandalism and crimes. Thus, removing graffiti from every car helped to dramatically reduce crime in NYC in the ’80s.
The implementation of an honor code might bring about similar positive changes. Though the honor code seems superfluous, it is a step in the right direction—not because it will necessarily lead to immediate, practical outcomes but because it changes our perception of cheating. Having everyone recite the honor code during the New Student Orientation Program and affirm its validity in Columbia blue books and exams would likely reduce cheating drastically. As CCSC Academic Affairs Representative Steven Castellano, CC ’13, asserted, many studies have suggested that if you write the words as simple as “I did not cheat,” you are less likely to cheat because the idea is reinforced.
There will be exceptions to this case, but it is at least a stride toward a greater appreciation for academic honesty. Though it is just the beginning, even these fruitful discussions and conversations within the campus community can help to bolster what it means to value academic honesty.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.
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