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A Point of Honor – “I will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do”

When I was in high school way back in 1984, a group of students in a lower grade conspired to cheat through the entire school year. They were finally found out and suffered . . . surprisingly not much. Normally, cheaters were publically chastised and expelled posthaste at my high school. How did this group of students survive to eventually graduate at the top of their class?

They were honor roll students and even though it was a private Christian high school with a strict honor code, demerit system and the necessary spiritual leverage to dangle the Keys of the Kingdom just out of reach of an erring student, the school administration went soft on the punishment. Maybe the administration was ahead of its time by claiming that conspiring is really just collaboration or maybe they just did not want to alienate future donors. Regardless, nothing in this experience was out of the ordinary. Some students will always cheat and if allowed to go unpunished, their example will pull more students into academic dishonesty. This all happens under the noses of weak administration.

Back in the Age of Common Sense, people understood the idiom “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” Now we must have the data to prove it. So, consider the 2010 study Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Cheating: The Influence of Direct Knowledge and Attitudes on Academic Dishonesty by Jillian O’Rourke, etal. They concluded that a small percentage of students cheat regardless of moral training at home or threat of punishment at school. They proved the “bad apple” part of our old fashioned idiom.

The study went on to prove the “spoils the whole barrel” part. Students who see other students cheat will themselves cheat even if they were taught at home that cheating was unethical. What then overcomes the moral teachings of home?

One explanation can be found in social learning theory as posited by Albert Bandura, the Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He says (in my simple-minded interpretation) that learning happens not just through behavioral changes but also by observation.

Applying Bandura’s assertion, if a student who states an ethical aversion to cheating sees another student cheat successfully enough times, the reluctant student will cheat also. At that point, the reluctant student has been socialized to cheat. Carrying this logic forward, if school authorities allow an atmosphere of cheating to exist, then more students will be drawn into it.

Consider Act 195 passed by our Legislature earlier this year defining the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. This bill requires that “Students finally also must be offered reasonable exposure, examples, and information on the state’s vision of life and career characteristics such as: Integrity, Self Direction, Global Perspective, Perseverance, Work Ethic, and Interpersonal Skills.”

Though some may brush these words off as politically driven pabulum for the electorate, the increasing number of students who enter school with no ethical or moral instruction from home and who view academic dishonesty as just “getting ahead” suggests that South Carolina schools must first focus on developing integrity.

Statistics reported by the International Center for Academic Integrity support the direction that Act 195 has mapped out. The ICAI reports that surveys of “70,000 high school students at over 24 high schools in the United States demonstrated that 64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism and 95 percent said they participated in some form of cheating, whether it was on a test, plagiarism or copying homework.” Clearly, we are not instilling academic integrity into our high school students. Since South Carolina has codified that our high school graduates should learn integrity, we should give schools the tools to carry out that vision.

Schools traditionally used honor code systems to socialize academic integrity. Honor codes are very simple pledges based on personal honesty and responsibility. To achieve an atmosphere of academic honesty, the student must proactively agree to be bound by the honor code, the code must be visibly upheld by the faculty as a positive force and violations of the code must be openly punished as appropriate. When this atmosphere has been created, academic dishonesty decreases. This was found true in the 1993 study, Academic Dishonesty: Honor Codes and Other Contextual Influences by Donald McCabe, etal.

Not everyone agrees. Susan H. Greenburg, writing in The Washington Post last year about eliminating honor codes remarked, “In an age in which collaboration and interpersonal skills are increasingly valued in the workplace, honor codes that rigidly define and punish ‘cheating’ in classrooms have become impractical and antiquated.”

She then repeats her argument, “In our modern world, when every known fact is readily accessible on the Internet, students are increasingly encouraged to collaborate on projects and share knowledge that inspires creative problem-solving. That kind of teamwork is valued in the working world but is undermined by outdated honor codes.”

Since she repeats herself, I am going to briefly pick at her argument with a few random rebuttals. Collaboration, teamwork and creative problem solving are not ideals mutually exclusive from integrity, the core ideal of the honor code. Stealing someone’s idea at work and presenting it as your own will not win you friends and most likely will cost you a job. Lying and stealing are much less tolerated at work than at school. Since Ms. Greenburg identified herself as the author of her article, I suspect that she would not appreciate another writer plagiarizing her work for use at another newspaper.

“So what? Students have always cheated and always will. It’s harmless” some may say. They fail to understand the source of the ethical drift that has eroded the overall national trust that Americans used to take for granted. Trust in the core purpose of our government, in our financial system, in our corporate leaders, in a shared work ethic, and in our educational system. At some point, Americans bought the 20th century notion that ethics could just be taught at home. That would be enough and schools could teach the three “R’s” in an ethical neutral zone free of the harsh expectation of individual responsibility. We were wrong.

When we look at our country, especially during this election season, and wonder how did we come to this, we should remember that integrity enables trust, which is the only true currency of a free society. A lack of integrity destroys trust and enables a corrupt society, a fearful society and eventually, an enslaved society. We have one legislative remedy to halt our ethical drift. We simply must remake our educational system into one that insists on honorable and ethical behavior from our students.

Take the honor code quiz by matching the honor code to the school –

___        Harvard

___        Washington & Lee

___        Greer Charter Middle College

___        The Citadel

___        Greenville High Academy

___        Clemson College of Engineering

___        SC Governor’s School for Science & Mathematics

___        United States Air Force Academy

  1. A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.
  2. Members of the ________ community commit themselves to producing academic work of integrity – that is, work that adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to their ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions. Cheating on exams or problem sets, plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own, falsifying data, or any other instance of academic dishonesty violates the standards of our community, as well as the standards of the wider world of learning and affairs.
  3. Engineers, both students and professionals, must be of honorable and trustworthy character. It is dishonest to claim credit for work, which is not the result of one’s own efforts.
  4. I will strive to achieve excellence, support and take pride in all areas of my school, be honest in my actions and words, lead my fellow classmates by responsible example with a mature and positive attitude. I will not lie to a faculty member, cheat, or steal.
  5. Every student must be a gentlemen.
  6. We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate anyone among us who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty, and to live honorably (so help me God).
  7. As members of the ____ community, we share a commitment to honor and integrity. We value those things that are right and decent; we reject any behavior that fails to meet those standards. Therefore, any act of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated.
  8. I will not commit any act of lying, cheating, stealing, academic dishonesty, vandalism, illegal intervisitation, or action in violation of South Carolina or federal law (such as possession or use of alcohol or other drugs). If I witness a violation of the honor code, I am encouraged to report the violation to a member of the administration, faculty, or staff and express either a willingness to go before the administration, Judicial Council, or Honor Council as a witness, or a desire for confidentiality.

See Below for Answer Key