December 17, 2003: Perspective

Illustration: James Steinberg

On your honor!
Integrity, beyond the code

By John V. Fleming *63


John Fleming *63 is the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton.

On the evening of September 21, Cannon Green witnessed a first – and I hope, first annual – Integrity Assembly. A sizable audience, including many new freshmen, came out into the gentle dusk to hear Bill Bradley ’65 give a talk in which he offered memorable examples of personal and professional integrity encountered in his careers in athletics and elected office. There also was an excellent undergraduate speaker, Elizabeth Biney-Amissah ’04. I said a few words, from which PAW has invited me to cobble together an essay.

I was aware that as this was an “Integrity Assembly,” not an “Honor Assembly,” its organizers had intentionally chosen to focus on broad issues of what President McCosh called moral philosophy, rather than on the concrete mechanisms of the Princeton honor system. Yet academic honesty was the element of “integrity” foremost in our minds. The only conceivable justification for the invitation offered me was that for most of two decades I have been a faculty adviser to the Undergraduate Honor Committee, and for most of that time, the only one. This role, though recently formalized by the dean of the faculty, remains essentially informal and undefined. The idea has been that it might be useful to the committee to have access to the advice of a senior faculty member with a certain amount of institutional memory. Such an arrangement has seemed desirable for at least two reasons. In an incrementally litigious age in which the once unquestioned judicial and disciplinary procedures of colleges have been increasingly challenged, the University has sought some measure of guidance, however minimal, in the honor process. The second and more important reason is that there is plenty of evidence, some anecdotal and some founded in statistical surveys, that the honor system lacks the committed support of increasing numbers of undergraduates and faculty alike.

If we can believe anonymous surveys, a very large number of Princeton students, all of whom have signed a solemn document promising to support the honor system, would not in fact turn in a friend they found cheating. I have no statistics for the faculty, but I do know there is widespread indifference and even some active hostility to a system that seems to many anachronistic, impractical, or fatally infected with the contagion of “elitism.” Very seldom do I hear articulated by either students or faculty what the honor code really is: a system designed to support the truthfulness and honesty indispensable in an academic community. The honor code is in fact the only formal contract ever negotiated between Princeton students and Princeton faculty.

There is indeed a “historical problem” with the honor code, but it is not (in my opinion) that the code enshrines the cultural constructs of dead white males, a quaint “honor” now happily turned to dust in our moment of postmodern and multicultural enlightenment. The problem is that the honor code’s sole focus on in-class examinations reflects a fossilized moment in the history of pedagogy: the Age of the Invigilated Examination, innocent of theses, term papers, problem sets, lab reports, a bewildering array of “electronic resources,” and, in fact, most of what comprises evaluated work at Princeton today. If, after signing the pledge on a final and handing it in, you steal a car in order not to be late for your appointment with your ghostwriter at the “Buy a Senior Thesis” agency, you have absolutely nothing to fear from the Honor Committee. (And precious little from the Discipline Committee, as it turns out: A man who a few years ago was so inattentive as to hand in a draft of his store-bought senior thesis with the agency’s bill tucked in its pages is today a Princeton graduate.) Much more recently a young man won the praise of famous Princeton writers, to say nothing of raking in thousands of dollars with the “Samuel Shellabarger Memorial Prize in Creative Writing,” for a short story that, after his departure, was discovered actually to have been written by a student in Texas, and lifted virtually word-for-word from an online journal. No violation of the honor code there, but a questionable display of integrity that was addressed in a serious but rightly confidential manner.

It is true that many undergraduates apparently are unaware of the precise parameters of the code within the more general requirements of Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities, so that out of morally generous instincts they often attach the honor-code pledge to term papers, and, indeed, almost any written communication with faculty members, including pleas for extensions and legal depositions concerning the manner in which the computer ingested their nearly finished papers. This phenomenon is, however, ambiguous in its implications, arguing as forcefully for student ignorance of the code as for the widespread acceptance of its broader application.

Lest we be tempted simply to sigh “O tempora, O mores,” we should realize we have been here before. Some older alumni will remember Dean Christian Gauss, and all alumni should honor his name, memorialized in the Gauss Seminars. In his posthumous Papers (1957), we find fragments of his correspondence with two of his more distinguished undergraduate students, Edmund Wilson ’16, the greatest man of letters the University has yet produced, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17. On February 1, 1928, Fitzgerald, then an alumnus in his early 30s, wrote to Gauss, alluding to an earlier “excited telegram” he had sent the dean, on the subject of the honor code. Fitzgerald was shocked, shocked. Following a recent visit to his alma mater, on a Dinky ride to the Junction, he engaged in conversation with “a freshman football man” whose roommate knew of multiple examples of unreported cheating on exams. Spiritually reeling, Fitzgerald then got on the train to Philadelphia with “the president of a very prominent club, not my own, a Princetonian of the rather old line, conservative, very gentlemanly type” – and this chap, too, knew of unreported cases. “The implication was that these were many,” Fitzgerald wrote.

News stories about cheating by college students, paralleled by others about cheating by professional scholars, are now journalistic commonplaces. Since I am a faculty member, it is faculty attitudes that most disturb me. The subject of academic integrity is not exhausted by the vulgar issue of cheating, but cheating offers the quickest ingress to a topic many of my colleagues seem loath to confront. I recently read some desultory correspondence in the New York Times from professors who blame student cheating on professors, because they are so pedagogically maladroit as to impose assignments that allow cheating. There is something in this, but so very little as to be visible only with the help of powerful optical instruments.

I tried to suggest at the Integrity Assembly that we perhaps face a paradox. The greater the need for an integral vision – that is, one that is genuinely capacious and comprehensive – the harder it is to achieve. Surely in today’s world the community that should most concern an audience of Princeton undergraduates, swimming in privilege, enlightenment, and nearly unrestricted possibility, is the global community of all humankind. So easy to say, so hard to live. The population of the globe is approximately six billion, three hundred million; even the scant 5 percent that comprises our own national American community is vast beyond our imagining. No wonder we recoil in stupor to our own tiny and familiar communities.

Students and faculty here are fellow members of the community of learning that has the local habitation and the name of Princeton. The demands of integrity commanding us in this little corner, while not essentially philosophically or morally different from those made upon us as citizens of the United States or fellow pilgrims on this planet, are wonderfully clear and graspable in their specificity. The essence of academic integrity is truthful dealing in teaching and in learning.

The Princeton students and faculty who a century ago framed the Princeton honor code must strike us today as charmingly quaint as the detachable starched collars and occasional spats seen in their photographs. I already have noted that in framing the code they seem to have had in mind no index of student evaluation other than the in-class examination. They were not clairvoyants who could foresee the world of problem sets, policy seminars, lab reports, take-home exams, and high-powered independent research that are the daily bread of undergraduate life today. Even on first principles they may seem to us today to have stressed the individual at the expense of the communal; for although teaching and learning can and do take place even under appalling conditions – a friend of mine has regularly taught a Dante seminar in Attica Prison, for example – they will thrive as we wish them to at Princeton only under the luxurious conditions of a vigilantly fostered sense of liberty, respect, and, above all, mutual trust.

If at the Integrity Assembly I had the temerity to imagine that an aging professor could navigate between the Scylla of hypocrisy and the Charybdis of pomposity to commend to today’s Princeton students an abstract academic “integrity,” it could be only because of the paradoxical truth long ago enunciated by one of history’s greatest teachers, Saint Augustine. In his remarkable book De magistro, or “Concerning the Teacher,” Augustine recognizes that, strictly speaking, no teacher has ever taught anybody anything. A teacher may propose truths, but it is the learner, using what Augustine called the indwelling logos or reason (for him a faculty at once of mind and of spirit), who must do the heavy lifting of testing, assenting, rejecting, or qualifying. I may “teach” you that two plus two equals five or that two plus two equals four. Your logos will accept the one and reject the other. Augustine believed that moral truths, like mathematical truths, were hard-wired within the interstices of our shared rational nature.

The teacher’s job is not to invent or discover, but to jog the spiritual memory. There are certain things, the imperative for academic integrity prominent among them, that go without saying, but should nonetheless not go unsaid. Therein resides the utility of Princeton’s first Integrity Assembly, which I considered myself honored to address.


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