As a current BYU student, I am bound by the “honor code,” a document that all students are required to sign in order to enroll. (Link here) While BYU has stressed the importance of a wholesome environment since the Karl Mäser days, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that an official document was drafted, primarily with the goal of promoting academic honesty and curbing cheating on campus. At the time, it was sponsored by more or less a student club, but apparently it was successful enough that President Wilkinson saw fit to officially adopt it, and eventually it became applied more broadly, and its scope expanded to include regulations regarding chastity, ecclesiastical endorsement, dress, grooming, curfews, and substance consumption. Today the honor code is an intrinsic element of the BYU community, and all those who attend or are employed by BYU are expected to abide by it.
I have actually never had any major personal qualms with abiding by the honor code itself. I think that I naturally fit the BYU mold close enough that I haven’t felt my corners get rubbed off by any restrictions or regulations. However, I have had associations with many who have not shared my experience.
I hope to take this chance to analyze the pro and cons of the honor code, and examine its effect on the BYU, and even LDS community at large.
The Church, and BYU as its representative, is increasingly image conscious. Projecting a wholesome image to the world is of tremendous importance, and in that regard, I believe the honor code is successful in doing so. I currently work at the BYU International Studies Center, where we regularly host scholars, ambassadors, and other dignitaries who speak to us from abroad. More often than not, as they make their tours throughout campus, they take notice of the atmosphere, and are very impressed by the modest demeanor of the women and the trim look of the men. BYU has in fact gained a strongly positive reputation in the international academic and diplomatic community, and is reportedly the talk of the town when all the foreign ambassadors gather in Washington to compare travel logs.
Likewise, BYU is a hot spot for corporate recruiters: representatives come from companies looking to recruit, and at BYU they find a wholesome, clean cut, value oriented pool to choose from. Year after year, BYU grads get job from employers who see BYU as a gold mine for hard working, honest, and upright students. The honor code could well be attributed as the driving force behind this image.
In many ways, I feel that I have the same personal goals as that stated mission of the honor code, to “provide an education in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” However, I do see principled disconnect when I consider that an institution feels the needs to uphold its moral principles (many of which are grounded in personal agency and liberty) by enforcing legislation that leads to compulsion or ultimatums.
Last week was “Honor Week” on campus. One of the events involved students submitting honor-code-promoting videos to the “Honor Oscars” (or something like that,) and the winning video would be shown the freshman at new student orientation in the fall. I saw a TV news spot about this where a finalist was interviewed and asked about the honor code. He said something to the effect of “…the honor code is important…it keeps us doing what we should.”
This is fairly representative of most pro-honor-code arguments; the emphasis of the argument praises the virtues it encompasses, and concludes with a “and the honor code maintains these great things, why would you be against it?”
The fatal flaw that I see in all these arguments is the implication that if the honor code didn’t exist, everyone would degenerate into lying, stealing, cheating, drug dealing, chain smoking, liquor swilling, promiscuous counter-culturists. If the honor code’s existence is justified by the fact that is it instills virtues, then the argument only holds ground if infact those virtues would be absent in the community were it not for the honor code. If that is true, then this argument is a terribly grim commentary about the community who at once wishes to be defined as adherents of the gospel of Jesus of Christ, but somehow feels it needs require a compulsory list of rules to maintain those morals. My understanding of Jesus Christ’s gospel includes the idea that obedience must be completely voluntary in order to produce its indented outcome. (Moro. 7: 6, 9)
Much more could be said about the honor code. On one side it helps in projecting a wholesome image to the world, and provides additional incentives for those who otherwise have no moral foundation to behave well. But on the other hand, it introduces a pharasitical framework of hedges around the law for the community to follow, which ultimately leads to “looking beyond the mark.” I am convinced that the pressures of conformity to the honor code more often than not lead to hypocrisy rather than righteousness.
Again, summarizing my stand on the issue, I am fully in favor of promoting wholesomeness and virtue on campus, but I find it somewhat saddening and unfortunate that a community that prides itself on inherent virtues and strong morals feels the need to establish mandatory legislation to enforce something it apparently already claims.
I suppose in the end, it’s up to the BYU administration to carry out the cost-benefit analysis of the two sides, and from the looks of it, it doesn’t seem like the honor code will be going anywhere anytime soon.