I've been immersed in the long "orientation" process for the past week. Although much of that process is tedious and mind-numbing, I found at least one part particularly interesting. My new academic home operates on an Honor System, something that used to be de rigeur for liberal arts colleges, but is unfortunately not so much anymore.
Our Honor System includes three pledges: an Honor Code, a Social Regulations Code, and a Commitment to Diversity. Violations of the Honor System are interpreted and adjudicated by an Honor Council, comprised entirely of students elected by their peers. By all accounts, everyone takes the Honor System very seriously here. I've spoken to several alums over the past couple of months, and not one has failed to mention the Honor System. And one of the first things I noticed on campus was the fact that students regularly leave their valuables (purses, bookbags, laptops, etc.) lying around, which was both a major departure from my experience at large state schools and probably the best testament to the effiacy of the Honor System here.
It's interesting to be around young people who have a concrete sense of what their "honor" is, what it's worth, and what needs to be done to maintain its integrity. I have often found, when teaching ethical theory for example, that it is very difficult to talk about "virtue" or any of the particular virtues (generosity, modesty, piety, courage, temperance, etc.) , as students tend to hear these terms as ambiguous categories with no concrete referents. The Honor System, it seems to me, reinforces Aristotle's claim that virtues must be practiced in order to be known. The students here pledge their honor at the beginning of their first year, and they affix their sugnatures to that pledge, which is on public display in one of our main buildings. Similarly, they must "pledge" every assignment and test that they turn in for classes. They are constantly reminded of the value of their honor and constantly given opportunities to become proper practitioners of phronesis.
Now, the cynical Sartrean in me suspects that there is more shame than virtue at work here. When students pledge their honor, they become like Sartre's voyeur in Being and Nothingness, who hears a bump in the hallway as he peeps through the keyhole and is ashamed, not because he is actually caught, but because intersubjectivity always implies the potential to be caught (to be "looked at" instead of being the one "looking"). The Foucaultian in me also suspects that the Honor System is yet another disciplinary practice which allows institutions to exercise the power they need to be "institutions," that is, the power to produce the kinds of subjects who reproduce the power that produced them.
But, I'm intentionally repressing those cynical alter-egos in favor of the Derridean in me, who thinks that constantly making promises (and placing them in the public trust) is a fine way of making a better world. And I want to ask: did any of you attend schools with an Honor System? What was your experience of it?