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Developing Foundational Values

What is honor? What is an honor code? What is academic integrity? Should all high schools and colleges call all of their students to a code of honor? If so, what should be the core ...

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What is honor? What is an honor code? What is academic integrity? Should all high schools and colleges call all of their students to a code of honor? If so, what should be the core of this code? After thirty years of teaching, I think the core of this code is very simple. Even in a world that is very selfish and self-centered, our core values should consist of honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility.

The key, if this is going to be effective, is that every faculty and staff person must support and enforce it. This means that at the beginning of every term, in every class every teacher must review what the code is all about with his or her students. They must emphasize why it is important and what the consequences are if a student is not compliant. From my perspective, the code should be so scared that any teacher should be able to leave the classroom unsupervised during a major exam and believe that all students would honor the code and not give in to the temptation to cheat or help another student cheat.

Unfortunately, the honor code is not respected in too many academic settings. However on many college campuses isolated faculty members make reference to the code, make it clear that it will be enforced, make it clear that if a student is not compliant the consequences of non-compliance will be implemented.

From a student's earliest academic experience, the honor code should be seen as something to be valued. Unfortunately, the code is not respected. We talk about it, but in truth we do not practice what we preach. I remember as far back as middle school, being told to write, "I do so declare" at the end of my test and sign it only if I did not cheat or help another cheat. Every teacher in every discipline stressed that code of honor and how important it was. That practice continued throughout my high school career. As a university student, it was foundational in most of my courses.

It is sad to say that today we don't have that universal acceptance of an honor code. The heart of the code should not be punitive, but rather a call to responsibility, respect, honesty and accountability.

Too many students are growing up with ethical indifference. The code is conditional. It only has power and importance in a student's life if he or she gets caught in non-compliance. Too many students subscribe to the principle that cheating is sharing and caring. "How bad can that really be?"

Where does that impression come from? Unfortunately, it comes from educators that are not firm on academic integrity, from parents who minimize honesty and the truth and from a culture that does not seem to value respect and honesty.

The internet and its' super information highway have made trying to protect academic integrity even more complex. Now teachers have to be concerned that students are stealing from the internet or even worse, recruiting people from the internet to write papers to which students attach their names and pass off as their own.

Last semester I had a discussion in one of my Sociology classes about cheating. I was amazed at how these particular students reacted. First, they did not think it was a big deal. Some even felt copying someone else's homework was not really cheating. Most felt that if you got caught, you should not be penalized the first time. If it was a paper, you should be allowed to re-submit it.

What I realized as the conversation continued was that cheating and plagiarism were only the tip of the iceberg. Most of these students felt that there was nothing wrong with a white lie. They felt that telling the truth regarding a friend's involvement in a dishonest, illegal or morally questionable circumstance was "ratting out."

It was amazing to see how ethically challenged they were. Their critical thinking skills were clearly impaired. It was frightening because most of these students were hard working, good young men and women.

If one does not have a personal honor code that is grounded in truth, respect, honesty, accountability and integrity to live by, then why should one expect that students would have an honor code?

Our culture encourages lying, cheating, stealing and manipulating. We don't use those harsh words to describe those behaviors; we mask them with softer terms that are more socially acceptable, like borrowing, misrepresenting the truth, a social misstep and so on.

JC is a nineteen-year-old college student with a 3.5 GPA. He comes from a responsible family. While in high school, he learned he could make a few bucks selling weed. His business became very lucrative, but he became greedy. His customers wanted the potent stuff like coke and heroin.

After a few phone calls, he started selling coke and heroin to local college students. He was making a fortune, until he got busted. After his arrest, a high bail was set. He begged his parents to get him out of jail because it was so horrific. His parents put their house up.

For the first few days out, he was fine. A week later he was back wheeling and dealing. He was arrested for the second time. Now he is facing a very long jail sentence. In speaking with him, I realized that he just did not get it. He did not see that what he was doing was wrong. Very honestly, in our conversation he implied that his only real mistake was that he got caught.

JC is one of a growing number of misguided young people who are growing up with a very distorted value system and a very twisted sense of honor.

We need to reclaim that sense of respect and integrity that were once the foundation of every life. Parents, teachers and community people need to stress, reinforce and model the same principles.

Punishment is not a deterrent, only perhaps a temporary detour. We need to lay the foundation early in one's development and consistently reinforce it in every area of one's life if it is going to take hold and become effective.

All young people should value being honest in every life endeavor and should conduct themselves respectfully, responsibly and honorably.