We Could Be Great

Every year at Olin, a group of 80 people sign a document that is hung by the Wooden Waterfall. And every year at Olin there is at least one Town Hall to talk about what’s on that piece of paper. And, inevitably, every year at Olin what is written is used as a means to address concerns or wrongs that occur on campus – and very seldom used to point out what is right.

Can a list of five values really capture what we want this community to be, and should they be used to frame or limit what can be talked about on campus? Some argue that yes, we absolutely need an Honor Code. It gives us a common language to talk about our community, it can reflect perhaps not who we are now but who we want to be, and it sets an expectation – as a member of Olin College, I will be great. But ‘greatness’ has such a wide variety of meanings to the students at Olin. If my definition of greatness doesn’t align with the Honor Code’s, am I wrong?

There is no safe venue for students to actively choose not to sign the Honor Code. There is no reaffirming ceremony, the Town Hall vote has slipped into symbolism, and when the question of whether or not the Honor Code should be kept comes up there are still those of us that laugh when the few votes of dissent trickle in. Why are you laughing?

Often, the alternative to the Honor Code is cited to be a rule-based system. A list of conduct, rather than a to-your-interpretation set of values. I propose a thought experiment: what if the values were replaced with….nothing? What would happen if suddenly there were no more values, but the Honor Board Hearing Panel Process was still in place? Perhaps campus would erupt in chaos… I tend to believe that things would likely continue the way they were.

From the Honor Board’s perspective, having the values is a neat and tidy way of handling cases and administering a report procedure. But there have been times in history where a report doesn’t necessarily fit into a tidy value – its more messy than that, just as real life always is. By having a listed set of values, perhaps we are limiting what we see as ‘honor-board-able’ actions thus leading to this perpetual state of minimal mediation through the procedure process.

Simply signing a piece of paper does not hold us accountable to ‘follow the Honor Code,’ though it is supposed to lend an air of promise to try to ‘be great.’ Voting to keep the Honor Code at every Town Hall doesn’t necessarily make us reflect on why we feel that way. Simply instituting an Honor Code does not fix or regulate our campus climate, but perhaps that isn’t the point of the Honor Code. Perhaps the focus on using it as a governing, behavior-controlling document isn’t how we should be thinking about it. Rather, perhaps it is a platform for discussing our campus climate. To reflect on personal values, on personal definitions of ‘greatness.’ To share with our community what makes us ‘great.’

The Honor Code is not the end-all be-all. We have the power to change, shape it, demolish it, ignore it, live it. What is the right thing to do?