Last spring, Randolph-Macon Academy Student Life Director Michael Williams took a group of students to an Honor Conference at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. That conference inspired the students to develop methods to teach this year’s Residential Life theme, “Honor: Its Definition, Purpose and Practice,” to the rest of the cadets at R-MA.
One of the first steps was a visit from one of the key speakers at the VMI Conference: Dr. David Rettinger, executive director for the Center of Honor, Leadership and Service at The University of Mary Washington. On August 19, 2013, Rettinger spoke about honor to the cadre students attending the Summer Leadership School.
Rettinger began with a basic of understanding when honor has been violated, using sports and traffic laws as examples. In hockey, penalties happen, he explained, and if it is an accidental penalty made in the spirit of the game, then it is referred to as a “good” penalty. In contrast, deliberately hurting another player is referred to as a “bad” penalty. In driving, traffic laws exist to promote safety. Going five miles over the speed limit is generally accepted as not violating the spirit of those laws, but going twenty miles over does violate it.
Rettinger then asked the students to share what they thought the purpose, or spirit, of school is. “Academics–learning,” replied one. “To grow as a person,” replied another. “To get ready for the rest of your life,” said yet another.
It was obvious from their hands raised in eagerness to the variety of their answers that the students were already engaged in this conversation. In a society where more than 85% of seniors graduating from across the nation admit to copying at some point during their high school career, that engagement is critical to having a successful honor code.
Rettinger moved the conversation into the “gray” areas: copying and cheating. Throughout the conversation, students volunteered that copying was wrong because it robs the copier of learning; that students often do it because time is valuable; and that there is confusion between the concepts of copying and working together. Another answer was that the students simply don’t care about the material being taught, so they don’t want to bother learning it.
“Learning things you don’t care about is the bread and butter of anyone who works a job,” Rettinger pointed out. “It is the process of learning you are missing out on when you copy.”
Then one student volunteered what Rettinger called a “very insightful” answer: “As teenagers in high school, they are more afraid to fail than they are to break their own standards of integrity.”
Rettinger agreed, adding, “That applies to adults too.” He added that the issue of understanding honor and cheating is not new: it is the reason that The College of William and Mary created the first honor code over 200 years ago.
Honor goes hand-in-hand with trust and community, Rettinger told the students. “It means putting your responsibilities ahead of your own needs, which you are doing as student leaders,” he observed. “An honor code reminds us that we are taking these qualities for our community, not just ourselves.”
Cheating was next on Rettinger’s list, and he wasn’t just talking about cheating on tests—he was referring to cheating as a violation of a socially determined rule, including games, sports, taxes, relationships, diet, or budget. The key to understanding what was considered cheating, he suggested, was to agree on the “rules” ahead of time. “Most students don’t think of themselves as cheaters,” he said. “People will cheat up until the point that it threatens their self-image as an honest person.”
“If you have a choice between learning something and cheating to get a good grade, choose learning,” he told the cadets. “Learning is where the action is.”
Rettinger spent some time gathering the students’ ideas about how to combat the culture of cheating in their generation, and added a few words of advice to what they said. “Focus on relationships. Have a conversation with the person, not the uniform,” he said. When witnessing someone cheating, he suggested confronting them right away, encouraging them to turn themselves in (and offering your support along the way), and only reporting them yourself if they won’t do the right thing by turning themselves in.
Throughout the school year, cadre, mentors, cadet life supervisors, and teachers will take what Rettinger presented and have conversations about honor. In doing so, they are taking Rettinger’s parting advice to heart and talking about honor in advance. “It is easier preventing it than dealing with it after something goes wrong,” he said.