NOVEMBER 01, 1962 by ROGER B. COOLEY
Mr. Cooley currently pursues his studies at the
By a narrow majority, my fellow students at a small liberal arts college recently voted for adoption of an academic honor code emphasizing student responsibility.
Responsibility, however, has various meanings. Some say that it applies solely to individuals, whereas others speak of "corporate" and "institutional" responsibility. Some see it as the very foundation of competitive private enterprise, while others think private businesses must be forced to be responsible through "social" legislation. And in the campaign for an academic honor code, some students obviously thought responsibility to be the basis for truth, honesty, and integrity, while others considered it a "free academic ride" for those who elect to cheat. At any rate, the term is vague and often misunderstood by today’s students, and their attempts to establish academic responsibility through various honor systems are apt to be shallow and misdirected.
Reserved to Individuals
A first principle of responsibility is that it is reserved to individuals. It cannot be exercised on behalf of any other person. To be responsible is to recognize one’s own part in a given situation; no other person can rightfully take the praise or blame for that part; there is no way of "taking the responsibility for another’s actions."
Responsibility is acquired as an essential part of the growth process. Children are taught that acts have consequences and that all actions are governed by the results they yield. Thus, the child learns to gauge his behavior to his wants and to become a responsible individual. Responsibility does not arise out of the actions of others. Its exercise is solely the result of individual trial and error, and the acceptance of it does not occur unless the individual is allowed to make mistakes. It is by succeeding or by making mistakes that each person gains the sense of his own "inner-direction," his own unique place in the universe, a chance to be a strong contributing member of society.
Now, how does the academic honor code fit this basic truth—that responsibility can only be exercised by each individual? The code recognizes "the rightful privilege [for the student] of full exercise of his honesty and integrity in the fields of academic endeavor…." But it then goes on to provide for the apprehension of academic cheaters by their peers: "Every student is morally bound to report an infraction of the Code." In short, the professor is relieved of his duty of proctoring exams, but the students must carry on in his absence. Each must be a watchdog over his fellow students.
In case of cheating, the student reporting the infraction is first required to offer the cheating student a chance to turn himself in. Then, he must check with the Academic Board to make sure the offender has confessed. This may seem to place responsibility on the individual student, but, in reality, it puts the burden on his classmates who have to watch him. The student is still proctored. Only the proctoring authority has been changed.
Giving the individual the opportunity to assert his responsibility is sound procedure, but to make each individual the keeper of his neighbor’s responsibility makes a mockery of the whole concept.
Aversion to Guaranteed Life
A second characteristic of responsibility is its aversion to security. Responsibility wants no part of "the guaranteed life." The individual who has everything provided for him rarely develops a high sense of responsibility. This is not because someone else is exercising responsibility for him but because his productive actions are needless in an environment that makes him secure. For example, a student’s responsibility under the academic honor code will not be enhanced one iota by substituting his peers as proctors in place of faculty proctors. The student’s honesty is still guaranteed by an authority. He need not practice honesty as a responsible person, but has his honesty guarded through coercion. The difference is plain. Coerced honesty gives the individual student security but deprives him of responsibility.
This analysis can be applied to the risk-taker in business who exercises responsibility of the highest order in the decisions that govern the future of his business. Upon his shoulders rests the success or failure of his enterprise. And the combinations of responsible entrepreneurial actions in the business world make for a sound economy. Governmental attempts to control these decisions only decrease the efficiency of free enterprise and destroy individual initiative. The tragedy is that many businessmen also have succumbed to the lures of the welfare state and advocate further government intervention to promote economic growth. "Why doesn’t the government do something about labor unions?" "Why doesn’t the government improve the public school system?" "Why doesn’t the government protect Americans from foreign competition?"
The road to government guaranteed security is the road to ruin, for when the few begin supporting the many, the few ultimately join the many. The system collapses.
Maximum Individual Freedom
A third characteristic of responsibility is that its most meaningful expression occurs under conditions of maximum individual freedom. If the individual is to be free to plan his life in his own way, he must accept his role as a responsible human being.
Looking again at our honor code, we can see that it affords no new grant of freedom to the students. It only transfers authority to them in academic matters, and cannot be said to increase individual student responsibility. When the code says, "Every student is on his honor to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities which the code places upon him," it seems only to mean that each must watch his fellow students to see that they do not cheat and be careful himself, that he does not get caught cheating. Has this given the student more freedom—the opportunity to exercise increased responsibility? What about his peers? Are they freer with him as their proctor than they were with a faculty proctor?
Anyone who claims the human right of choice in his own affairs and destiny must also assume the responsibility for his actions. Freedom of will for the individual cannot exist apart from the assumption of individual responsibility. The two are inseparable, and a denial of one negates the other.
The fight for freedom, academic or otherwise, is first of all a fight for responsibility. And where better to pitch the battle than at the level of the student honor code?
There are admirable potentialities in every human being. Believe in your strength…. Learn to repeat endlessly to yourself: "It all depends on me."