Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Defense of Academic Integrity

This article speaks to the woeful state of personal honesty among certain segments of college students:

The two instances of personal integrity in academia that speak to me most are:

1) Karl G. Maeser
2) The University of Virginia's Honor System

Professor Maeser was born and raised in Saxony and essential in the nascent stages of BYU's existence. On the southwest corner of campus you'll find a statue in his honor based on this quote:

"I have been asked what I mean by my word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls-- ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground - there is a possibility that in some way or another I will escape; but stand me on a floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the Circle? No. Never! I would die first." {{reference}}

If you look closely at the statue you'll notice that the sculptor carved ivy growing up his leg, symbolizing that he stood in his chalk circle so long that the ivy found purchase on his person. That's the kind of integrity that we need in the world today. But what is integrity? It's not something that you can just pick up overnight. Having integrity means that you'll do the right thing even when no one is looking; it means that you will do what is right no matter what. How many of us can claim to have the same level of integrity? I've known a few men and women who had that kind of integrity, previous posts about my father might clue you in on where I got mine. At Brigham Young University, several times, I had students contact me a year or two after a class and confess to having cheated. I let them off the hook because they had the fortitude to come to me and confess their mistake, regardless of the consequences. They weren't caught, they came forward because their conscience troubled them and they knew they had to make amends. There was contrition, true contrition, which restores integrity lost, provided the behavior isn't repeated. I'm sure there are even more who never contacted me, but who cheated or didn't follow the rules, but then realized how wrong their behavior was, and turned from ever doing it again. That's just as good in my book. But, I still say that it's better to have never lost one's integrity in the first place.

And that's why I love the University of Virginia's Honor Code. According their website, it entails the following:

Each student is charged with the responsibility to refrain from dishonorable conduct. Accompanying this individual commitment to abide by the Honor System is an even more demanding commitment ­a responsibility to ask those who violate our standard of honor to leave the University. Accepting these responsibilities is vital to the successful maintenance of our student-run Honor System.

Virginia maintains a zero-tolerance Honor Code policy. All students pledge to keep it and to report those who do not. Check out this interesting video about the Code.

I've been through the honor code process as a professor. I caught a student red-handed. Rather than admit their malfeasance, they denied it to the bitter end. I hear this same thing time and time again from other professors; students will lie about lying. Since the law says that we can't call their parents anymore, they're on their own. So, I tire of having to tell my students constantly that they cannot use translation programs on their assignments. I'd like to be able to have them all sign an honor pledge, but that would fall outside the scope of my powers as a professor. What I'd love most is to just be able to trust people to do the right thing. But, in our ever-growing nanny culture, that's not to be.

1 comment:

chattypatra said...

Ah, yes, integrity. Unfortunately, for many people, that is a BIG word.

Your students who use the translation program do not realize how much they are cheating themselves, meaning, their own brains. Is that program going to be available when they have to actually engage in conversation with a native speaker? No. How about when they are asked to simultaneously translate a conversation or a speech at work? No. What are they going to do then?
Will the program be there when they need to write a quick but effective business letter? No! Whoever reads it will realize the mistakes. Things like that quickly lose any executive the respect of his/her assistants, secretaries and/or co-workers whose first language is Spanish, or who didn't cheat in school and actually learned well and became fluent.

I pity the fool!

Your story reminds me of one of my own. I'll need to post it later today. Thanks for sharing.