I went to college at the University of Virginia in the early 1960s, in what was effectively a reign of terror. On the first day of orientation, new undergraduates were grouped together in the presence of the student body president to be told that certain unyielding principles were at work in this miniature world of ours. Chief among them -- chief because deviation from it was punished the most severely -- was the matter of honor: a university man did not lie, cheat, or steal, nor would teh community tolerate a liar, cheat or thief in its midst.
For suspected honor violations, official action was swift and surgical. The accused was informed of the charges lodged against him, lodged always by another student, and given the choice of leaving school or appearing before the student-run honor committee. Should the accused be found guilty by the honor committee, there was but one penalty: expulsion.
We received the news that first day with a studied casualness, much as the members of a high school football team are likely to shrug off the announcement of some impossible blocking-sled drill while terror secretly grabs their vitals. Something important was to be put to the test here, some vision of what we would like our own best selves to be; and it was to be put to the test time and again for as long as we endured the place.
A kind of giant situation ethics game played itself out on our private boards, a world of whatifs overlaid by the Draconian system we had fallen into -- overlaid finally with the specter of expulsion, disgrace, with the fear of finding ourselves wanting at the core. And yet we managed to go about the business of being undergraduates wich much of that same studied casualness. We crammed late, often futilely, did our term papers, took our examinations, even carried them with us when we went out for a coffee and doughnut halfway through; and at the end we pledged on our honor as gentlemen that we had neither given nor received aid, and sealed that pledge with our signatures.
Honor, gentlemen, pledges and sacred trobs --val. But what seems most antiquated of all is the absolutism that colored the system. Just as there were no gradations of punishment with the university's honor system, so there were no gradations of guilt. One wasn't a little dishonest where the system was concerned, larceny wasn't understood in its social context, a lie was a lie was a lie. Mitigating circumstances entered hardly a whit into the honor council's deliberations; Robin Hood was as guilty as Willie Sutton. And the violations, if they were found to have occurred, brought them all -- liar, cheat, and thief, petty ones and grand ones -- to the same end.
What occasions these thoughts is the news that a study committee -- acting in part on the basis of a Gallup poll of university alumni and students -- has now recommended a number of changes in the honor system. Many of them are procedural, but one is fundamental; henceforth, should the committee's changes be enacted, an honor violation shall be punishable either by a one-year suspension or by expulsion, at the trial panel's discretion. A second violation shall be met with expulsion.
One shouldn't be too surprised. We live in a world where too many off-with-their-heads tyrants have given absolutism a bad name. We understand, as we should, that any act of behavior is the sum total of a hundred parts, each part the sum total of a hundred influences; and if as a society we are no longer as committed as we once were to treating the act by curing the influence, we still hold that compassion and mitigation have a role in our daily doings. We are not a mean people, far from it; and there's a little larceny in the best of us. But if one shouldn't be surprised by the recommendation to do away with the single sanction that has always been the honor code's hallmark, I still reserve the right to be saddened by it.
I took part in an honor trial once, mostly as an innocent bystander. A dorm-mate from my first year, accused of cheating on a biology examination, had asked me to appear before the committee as a character witness; and so I found myself at 10 that night at the student union building. (Honor trials were always held as close to the lodging of the complaint as possible.) Shortly after 2 in the morning, after four hours of bridge with my fellow witnesses, I was called in to testify. There, I affirmed that I had never known my old dorm-mate to lie, cheat, or steal; and the hour being late and the occasion momentous, I settled back at the bridge table for the night. At 7 I wandered over to the cafeteria for breakfast; and there I saw my one-time dorm-mate, on recess from his own trial, a shadow of doom already crossing his face -- a depth of sadness and despair that was awful to behold. A little over an hour later, he was found guilty. I never saw him again.
Under the proposed changes, my old dorm-mate needn't have been so glum. He still would have been disgraced by a conviction, of course, but even in that last hour of his trial, when hope of establishing his innocence had long ago ebbed, there still would have been the possibility of rehabilitation, of a second chance. Mitigation will be on hand with the changes, and the concept of honor will no longer be so monolithic at the university, so secretly terrifying.
All, that is kinder I suppose, and perhaps kindness should be the issue here. But what's also at issue is the business of testing oneself, in a crucible where every deviation is fatal -- not a Hemingwayesque test, not physical courage, not grace under pressure; but the kind of test where the matter being weighed runs straight through to the soul. That's what will be lost, and it will be a shame.