College's honor system is tried and true

September 26, 2000|By Susan Reimer

THE CONCEPT of honor seems dated these days, when the definitions of right and wrong are parsed and spun.

An honor code sounds like something students would find only at a military college, where young people are taught that trust can mean life or death in combat.

An honor code at a Catholic women's college? That sounds as dated as white gloves, as redundant as scheduling mass on Sunday.

But the young women at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame do not appear to think so. The honor code there, in place since 1936, is not further restraint but long-sought liberation - freedom from the expectation that they will lie, cheat or steal.

"In high school, they didn't trust us," says Sediqua McTier, a freshman basketball player from St. Petersburg, Fla. "I want a chance."

"The honor code is one of the reasons I came here," says Jonelle Malta, a freshman from Mountaintop, Pa. "There is a lot of dishonesty in society, and the honor code appeals to me. And I heard from other students that it works here."

"It is a big jump from high school, where you are spoon-fed and reminded all the time not to do anything wrong," says Nichole Burgess, a freshman from Parkton. "It is a big jump, but it is a good idea. It is a combination of freedom and responsibility."

These new students had just emerged from an orientation meeting to prepare them for the Honors Convocation. On Saturday, new students dressed in the cap and gown they hope to wear four years hence attended a quasi-religious ceremony at which they repeated a pledge so sacred to the traditions of the College of Notre Dame that it was not spoken during the rehearsal.

I shall try to follow all truth. I shall try to see all beauty. I shall try to be all goodness. And thus to come to that Eternal Wisdom which is the Word of God.

"In the days ahead, read it and try to take it in," instructed Dr. Roni Jolley, assistant academic dean at the orientation meeting. "Try to digest it."

The pledge sounds like a very tall order. In practicality, the students are pledging not to cheat on exams that have been un-proctored since 1936. And in its modern application, it also means they will not plagiarize term papers from the Internet or use someone else's computer files.

But in a much more complex application, the honor code calls for Notre Dame students to conduct their social life for the honor and good of the community. "Just as honor cannot be imposed, neither can it be divided," reads an archived explanation of the code written in the 1950s. "It cannot regulate your academic performance and have no bearing on your social life. It is a SPIRIT that must be lived completely."

"I was pretty skeptical at first," says senior Tara Mathew of Baltimore. "High school was so rigid. Teachers watched you every minute. When I got here, I thought, `Why wouldn't people pull out a notebook during a test?' But they didn't.

"There is something about Notre Dame. This is a very values-based education. This is not a place where you want to be pulling things."

Mathew worked for a major corporation this summer and found the honor code that had been part of her college life for three years was an anchor in the churning waters of real life.

"I found that I took it outside of Notre Dame. It doesn't occur to you to do something unethical, to do something without checking in with someone first or asking permission. It doesn't occur to you not to tell the truth.

"The honor code is not just another set of rules. It is about taking responsibility for your own actions."

The obligations of the honor code are twofold. First, a student must conform her own behavior to the standards of the school. Second, and perhaps most troubling to these young women, they must hold others to those standards by telling the offender to report herself to authorities. If the offender does not, the witness is honor bound to do so.

"I, with all my experience, would be hesitant to do that," Mathew says candidly.

But Malta does not share her uncertainty, at least in the abstract. "I would do it because it is my obligation," she says. "When a person betrays our community, she is also betraying herself. I would do it for their own good and for the good of the community."

"Three years ago, I might have been hesitant," says Burgess. "But I have more confidence now."

This tradition actually began with the students, Jolley tells the young women. It is a pledge to be honest in academic life, but it also means that backpacks can be safely left in the hall, that residence doors need not be locked and that roommates will respect each other in the crucible of dorm life.

"You will sign this pledge of honor and it will be part of your academic record. You will write this pledge of honor on the top of every test," she tells the students.

"It celebrates the spirit and the values of this institution. It illuminates the meaning of academic honor."

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