Against Systems – III

Did you know that honor codes that consist of a specific list can be gamed? For example, the US Air Force Academy Honor Code, at one time, was:

“We shall not lie, cheat, nor steal, nor tolerate those among us who do.”

So, let’s say you are nineteen, go to a tavern and order a beer. The bartender doesn’t ask your age. You don’t tell him. Did you violate the honor code?

Think about it. You didn’t lie. No one asked you a question! A lot of Air Force Cadets in the 1980’s said “No”, it wasn’t an honor code violation, and therefore found bars where they would not be carded.

The problem is that the more precise you make it, the more holes enter into the system. Trying to nail down all of these little exceptions with more clarifications doesn’t really help; you either get a legal brief that no one reads, or you leave room for someone crafty to think of exceptions.

There is another way. I found this on Wikipedia Today:

Washington and Lee maintains a rigorous Honor System that traces directly to Robert E. Lee, who said, “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” Students, upon entering the university, vow to act honorably in academic and nonacademic endeavors. While “honor” is often interpreted as meaning that they will never lie, cheat or steal, the Honor System actually proscribes whatever behavior the current generation of students decides is dishonorable.

The Honor System has been run by the student body since 1906. Any student found guilty of an honor violation by his or her peers is subject to a single penalty: expulsion. Faculty, administration and even trustees are powerless; the Honor System is defined and administered solely by students, and there is no higher review. Referenda are held every three academic years to gauge each generation’s appetite to maintain the Honor System and its single penalty, and the students always re-ratify the Honor System by a wide margin.

Washington and Lee’s Honor System is distinct from others such as those found at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia because it is not codified. That is to say, unlike those others, Washington and Lee’s does not have a list of rules that define punishable behavior.

The Honor System encompasses fundamental honesty and integrity. Other disciplinary frameworks exist to address lapses of social and behavioral standards that do not fall into the category of a student’s basic honor. (If you cheat on an exam or take a book from the library without checking it out, it’s an honor violation. If you go 55 in a 50-mph-zone, it isn’t.)

As a result, a sense of trust and safety pervades the community. The faculty and staff always take students at their word (and indeed, local merchants accept their checks without question; many also extend credit). Exams at W&L are ordinarily unproctored and self-scheduled. It is not unusual for professors to assign take-home, closed-book finals with an explicit trust in their students not to cheat.

The Honor System clearly works. In most years, a few students are expelled after trials conducted by the elected student government (with the accused usually counseled by law students). Recently, expulsions have ranged from 8 in the 2003-04 school year to a more modest 2 in the 2004-05 year. Students found guilty can appeal the verdict to the entire student body, although this daunting option is not often exercised.

Something tells me that the eight-to-two people that got expelled were expelled for a fine reason, and that appeal would just make them look bad.

Is that a “defined process”?

If it produces reliable output, why do we care?

Update: Just FYI, it’s the 200th birthday of Marse Robert.

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