The Honor of the Brigade

January 30, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Final exams never counted among my fonder memories of college life. But in recent days, as the Navy's inspector general implicated 133 midshipmen in last year's cheating scandal at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, I recalled some of those dreaded times that ended each semester, and I did some revisionist thinking.

My college was small, single-sex and, even considering the times, lacking in diversity. Maybe those characteristics made it easier to enforce an honor code. Maybe also the times were more congenial to unbending ideas of right and wrong. Whatever the dynamics, a strict honor code -- and the reasonably sure prospect of punishment meted out by peers -- produced some distinct advantages, including the practice of allowing students to schedule their own final exams.

It was largely a student-administered system. Teachers filed tests in plain brown envelops. Students picked them up at a central location at the beginning of any one of the scheduled exam periods and returned them after three hours.

Students eager to finish the semester could blitz through finals in two or three days. The rest of us could put them off for a while, gaining valuable study time.

I remember thinking how easy it would be to cheat. I also remember the pride most students took in being trusted not to cheat. But my college was not unique in this respect, and despite plenty of other changes on campuses, I hope that's still the case.

What I have found most disturbing about the Annapolis scandals is not the bumbling that prompted additional, outside investigations of the episode, but rather the attacks on the honor code itself.

A number of critics -- including some midshipmen -- have complained bitterly that people who lied about their involvement escaped punishment while those who admitted guilt faced severe consequences. That is the problem with any honor code; it can be taken advantage of.

But especially at military academies, taking advantage of an honor code should be considered dangerous business. Trustworthiness is a trait every school should demand of students. But there are specific reasons to stress honor in the military -- and they have to do with forming the kind of officers who will be entrusted with the lives of other Americans. For these people, the traits embodied in an honor code should come as naturally as breathing.

If officers -- particularly those trained at the nation's elite military academies (at taxpayer expense) -- cannot always be trusted to uphold the highest standards and to demand that of others, then the quality of the nation's armed services suffers. Ultimately, that weakness could cost American lives. That's why cheating scandals at Annapolis, West Point or Colorado Springs always make headlines and always should.

In fact, those midshipmen who were unhappy that some people escaped punishment look pretty silly. After all, they had another option -- to turn them in.

Whistle-blowing is neither easy nor popular, and it may in fact be the most difficult aspect of an honor code. But if future officers can't police themselves, can they command the respect of others?

The U.S. Naval Academy has a simple statement of its code: ''Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They do not lie, cheat or steal.'' Implied, but not stated, is the notion the midshipmen will not allow lying, cheating or stealing in their ranks.

The nation's two other military academies go further, adding a ''non-toleration'' clause to their codes. Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, for instance, swear a simple, 13-word oath: ''A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do.'' If a cadet complained that someone else got away with lying, presumably he or she would then be expected to name names.

Among other reforms, the Naval Academy is considering adding a similar clause to its code. That would be a tacit acknowledgment that expectations can't be implied; they must be spelled out in detail. On the other hand, it would be a realistic acknowledgment of the limits of human nature. If it's hard to turn in a friend, it helps to know that there is absolutely no question about your duty to do so.

But a non-toleration clause is only as strong as the climate in which an honor code functions, and the Naval Academy's leadership has been severely criticized in this respect. Of the three academies, midshipmen currently get the least amount of formal instruction in the honor code, what it means, how it works and why it is important. That needs to change.

Pessimists are wrong. There is plenty of room for honor in the modern world. But it needs constant cultivation, even at military academies.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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