Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin email@example.com
Honor Among Tigers
Cheating, or not, at
"I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code
during this examination." Those 15 words, perhaps more than
anything else, set Princeton apart from its peers. Through the years
the words of the oath have changed (older alumni may recall pledging
their honor as gentlemen), its effectiveness and its relevance have
been questioned again and again, and yet the simple code of conduct
In 1961, fresh off the TV-quiz-show scandals, PAW editor John
Davies '41 took a look at the Honor System with a handful of photographs,
showing students stretching, chatting, leaving the room, and drinking
coffee during exams, and an editorial discussing the purpose of
and need for exams, the rising national concern over cheating, and
the ways Princeton had changed since World War II.
While acknowledging the value of exams "the results
are worth the effort, since they compel the student to review, integrate,
summarize, assimilate the course material as a whole"
Davies raised familiar questions about what exactly exams measure
and what success on exams foretells. He cited an Amherst study in
which the admissions office asked faculty to name students they
really enjoyed teaching, in hopes that the admissions staff could
identify what made them such a delight, and admit more of them.
Unfortunately for the admissions office, not only did the professors
name just 20 percent of their students ("proving incidentally
that they do not enjoy teaching 80 percent of their students"),
of the fraction they did name, 20 percent were in the bottom half
of their class gradewise. The admissions office abandoned its hopes,
realizing that "joys to teach" did not necessarily make
valedictorians. As Davies continued, "Academic society rewards
the A-earners, regardless of how little of their learning they may
retain or use." The value that society placed (and continues
to place) on good grades and college degrees, as well as a "widespread
and alarming shift in American moral standards," according
to Davies, put pressure on students to succeed and to cheat.
Despite all this, and the "swirling tides of change"
among the undergraduate student body "before the war
75 to 80 percent came from prep schools with their tyrannical moral
codes and nosy prefects, now over half are from public high schools
where the extreme pressure to get into college and the more relaxed
standards make the practice of cheating common" Davies
concluded that the Honor System had survived intact. "Not a
single student, professor or administrator I talked to thought there
were any violations of the Honor System whatsoever." In this
he saw continuity from the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald '17, who
once wrote of cheating at Princeton: "It simply doesn't occur
to you, any more than it would occur to you to rifle your roommate's
Davies's serious take on the Honor Code elicited one less-serious
response. Orville Watson Mosher '09 remembered his senior year,
when he and his roommates had formed "a sort of 'shower-bath'
quartette. The only one who could carry a tune at all was gay, festive,
debonair Crosby, our peerless leader; the Rankin twins and I had
voices of distinctly nutmeg-grater or disgruntled bullfrog type.
The combination was simply awful, so bad that it was good and all
the funnier from the fact that from outward appearances we took
ourselves seriously." During exams the four left McCosh Hall
and struck up one of their favorite tunes outside the windows. "The
song was so appropriate to the examination that it was greeted by
delighted yells and Yeas! From the tired students sticking their
heads out of doors and windows our performance was a howling
success." Mosher went on to compare the scene at Princeton
to that of Harvard Law, where "gimlet-eyed professors walked
the aisles looking for cheaters and even followed us into the 'twilight,'
as my little son expressed a certain location."
At the very least the Honor System has spared Princeton students
Jane Martin 89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can
reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org