The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The Honor System: Fostering Honor or Fear?

The Honor System is a core part of our University’s history, but what if it is keeping us from a better future?
Meklit Tilahun
University Chapel at 2023 Convocation.

Honor: a foundational principle of Washington and Lee past, current and future students alike. However, what does it truly mean to live a life of honor on this campus? According to the words of the proclaimed White Book, how can one truly ensure they avoid “behavior it deems dishonorable?” Well, I’m here to tell you that you can’t and (likely) never will. To understand this, we must examine the true realities and implications of the White Book and the Executive Committee (EC) on campus today.

Washington and Lee University operates on a non-codified system. There are no clearly defined parameters behind what constitutes an honor violation. The EC and its new elective body are responsible for ultimately distinguishing what is and is not considered a violation of honor. Therefore, these parameters are subject to change upon each generation, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity regarding violations.

There are understandable benefits to a non-codified system. Each upcoming class holds more autonomy to make the honor system their own, therefore leaving their distinguishable mark. The ever-evolving definition of honor (idealistically) challenges students to its moralistic and introspective pursuit rather than the validation of a rule book. However, these parameters of what is considered dishonorable conduct will shift without the understanding of the student body at large.

We as the community are left in the dark and our only perceivable power in the process exists in EC voting representation. We technically hold control over who makes these choices on behalf of the community but flaws exist in reality.

EC running candidates primarily run on platforms in regard to the many other responsibilities they are tasked with outside the honor code violations. While nuanced perspectives and characteristics in these other fields are important, they ultimately lose sight of the fundamental principle of the EC and its original purpose.

Even if a candidate might individually be willing to speak on their thoughts toward the Honor System, the non-codified system upholds that the EC as a unit cannot clarify such standards to the student body. Individual ideas of honesty and transparency are lost upon a foundation of intentional ambiguity.

The lack of inherent transparency leaves students in the dark and where there is darkness, there is fear. Such an instance was seen on the welcome address in the University Chapel after being given the opportunity to leave and withdraw from the University if we did not feel capable of upholding the Honor System.

For the first time since I had been on campus, an insurmountable feeling of warmth was replaced with rigid, callous, and precautionary warning. This ritual of initiation I would come to learn is done yearly to assert the only true and clear certainty of the Honor System: one strike and you’re out. But what counts as a strike you might ask? Only the representatives of the EC will ever know.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I revel in many of the practical beauties seen associated with the Honor System: laptops left unsupervised yet untouched by the masses, un-proctored exams, and many more. In my short time on this campus, I take it as one of the greatest luxuries and shining feats of our attendance at Washington and Lee. But, I also think the community’s key to further long-term success and growth (and what truly garners these beauties) lies at the forefront of honesty and trust.

The Honor System at its core principle hopes to have students hold themselves and their fellow peers to the highest standard in all aspects and circumstances of life so that the collective community can thrive. Upholding an honor of character requires truth and therefore the permissible space of humility to admit one’s wrongs.

Mistakes and poor choices are an inevitable misstep in the human experience. In some shape or form, it happens to us all. They are a fundamental catalyst of human growth and development. The System should be proud to witness student-led accountability and truth-telling but such thought arises an interesting epiphany.

How can we as community members of an educational institution want to uphold standards of student-led and upheld honesty, trust, and accountability when we would simultaneously repay such efforts with finalized and irreversible dismissal rather than opportunities for re-education or redemption? This system fosters a society without growth or redemption in mind, thus (ironically) serving to the antithesis of education and self-improvement itself. This also erases the bearing of context, background, and intention in regard to the nuance or fair level of punishment.

Now this leniency obviously should be given within reason but that would be granted on the already case-by-case review conducted by the EC by the details of each case. Overall, this not only leaves students less compulsory to individual honesty but also student-upheld reporting or accountability. The system itself thus fosters a culture of dishonesty and mistrust where it intends the opposite. So the real question is does the key aspects of a non-codified, single sanction Honor System perhaps permit more harm than good on campus?

Some of you may agree with my concerns and some of you may not. I leave that for you to decide. However in the words of Professor Pickett on Convocation, we should “question everything.” Whether that means the Honor System or some of my own thoughts on it, I invite you to question alongside me. Find your own voice within the conversation because each student has every right to a voice and opinion as any other. That will be the difference between fostering a generation of fear-struck students and one of honorable and accountable leaders.

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  • N

    Nelson PattersonSep 29, 2023 at 12:40 pm

    “Where there is darkness, there is fear” Really? Are you saying students live in fear of agreeing not to lie, cheat, or steal?

    And “these parameters are subject to change upon each generation, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity regarding violations”. Exactly what generational bent is so out of step with the definitions of honor?

    And isn’t any election about understanding a candidate and teasing out their positions on topics of interest to the voter? Isn’t that the basis for deciding anything – acting out of self-interest?

    The Honor System exists to define the character that is expected of members of the community. It is the choice of members of the community to either conform and remain, or choose to leave. But this hand-wringing blather about being unsure what the Honor System stands for: really? Students should be smarter than that.

  • J

    JEFFREY DUKE SOUTHMAYD '73Sep 27, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    The honor code under Lee and during the tenure of W&L as a men’s college was simple. We treat each other with civility, and gentlemen don’t lie, cheat or steal. Those incapable of living up to these rather simple rules were sent away.