Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

June 4, 2003:
Honor Among Tigers

Cheating, or not, at Princeton

"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 endures.

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 pocketbook."

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 that indignity.


Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu