To Snitch Honorably

by Zachary Gottlieb | 12/3/08 3:41am

After you read this article, I'm going online to report the Honor Education Committee for plagiarism; I'm pretty sure they stole their inspiration from the PATRIOT Act. That, or the Ministry of Love. I love Big Brother.

Sure, you can argue that the system facilitates a tough decision for the "timid," as committee member Kat Stillman '10 calls them -- you know, people who want to ensure an honorable atmosphere without resorting to, oh, I don't know, accountability ("Honor Comm. seeks code violation reports," Nov. 21). Simply put, this HEC web site is a golden calf for pusillanimous do-gooders.

The Academic Honor Principle is a challenge to all students to respect the legacy of academic integrity at Dartmouth, and any related policies should reflect that spirit. Our code gives us a wealth of options if we witness a failure to comply: "The student may report the violation, speak personally to the student observed in violation of the Principle, exercise some form of social sanction, or do whatever the student feels is appropriate under the circumstances."

If you are willing to condemn another student for his or her crimes, you should have to formally stand by your word. Don't fill out a web form -- how about talking to the student or the professor? With the new system, worthy members of the HEC (in a dark room in an undisclosed location) will decide whether your claims deserve merit.

But now, anyone can anonymously (and legitimately) incriminate another student. While innocence should be a safe defense, the professor whose class is in question will soon be militaristic in his or her examination of all students. The reporting system may not result in catching a grievous offender, but may in fact cast a net of professorial paranoia that can ensnare -- if not, then simply stress -- the innocent. Reporting anonymously creates a game of classroom Mafia. Someone's going to get whacked overnight, and it might not be the Don.

The HEC is bound by the written laws of the honor code, which include a tenet often overlooked by undergraduates: "Any student who becomes aware of a violation ... is bound by honor to take some action." If the committee wants to educate students about prudent reporting, it has now given them a way to cheat the code it is founded upon. The new reporting system has institutionalized students' failure to report violations. Because a professor is notified that someone is suspected of cheating, the guilty party is not identified. The anonymous report relieves the witness of his or her own witness' guilt, without doing justice to the goals of the honor principle. Saying nothing is bad. But crying "wolf" to a blind hunter seems even worse.

When Nathan Miller, assistant director of Judicial Affairs, says that the reporting system "provides an avenue for students to uphold a charge that they've been given through the honor code," he's being intellectually dishonest. The honor code doesn't actually require students to "report any violations," but simply "do whatever the student feels is appropriate under the circumstances." Nathan Miller's assumption about the spirit of the honor code, therefore, is incorrect: "Taking action" doesn't require reporting but can even mean having a discussion with a friend about it.

I expect a classic rebuttal to my indictment of the reporting system: "If you have nothing to hide, then you've got nothing to worry about." This is how our government defended the Alien and Sedition Acts, the PATRIOT Act and civilian internment. Has anyone considered the ramifications to the sense of community shared by students? It doesn't seem right at Dartmouth.

According to our honor code, "If Dartmouth students stand by and do nothing, both the spirit and operation of the Academic Honor Principle are severely threatened." Anonymous reporting falls short of this mandate, yet injects a continuous sense of distrust in the classroom and community. The uncomfortable boundary between doing something cowardly and doing nothing dishonorably should not be formally endorsed by the College or its constituents.

How can we applaud timidity? The honor code does suggest that a witness should "do whatever the student feels is appropriate under the circumstances." Giving them a guilt-free rat hotline -- especially in a system that mandates you to act -- goes against the transcendent promise of civil liberties and Dartmouth's sense of interpersonal loyalty. I'm not telling anyone to "Stop snitchin'." Just do it honorably.

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