Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Honor in Education: Air Force Academy

In September, I was interviewed by a Colorado reporter about the cheating scandals at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. It sounded like the issue was the use of informants within the ranks of the Academy to catch cheating. It turned out to be more than that (more than just catching cheating), but I did a bit of research on the Academy and cheating scandals that have rocked it in the past. The news story has now been published, and I've shared the link in the latest post, above.

While I sympathize with instructors at the Academy, who have endured some embarrassing discoveries of widespread academic dishonesty (in 2007, fifteen cadets were expelled for cheating and three others resigned, and in 2004, something similar had occurred--USA Today, "15 booted from Air Force Academy for cheating," 5/1/2007), I have to say that if it was entertaining the idea of planting spies in order to catch cheaters, this would do nothing but harm to the military's desire to implant a sense of honor in young cadets. Honor codes are held together by shared values and a sense of trust with other members in your community--trust that you all have internalized the honor code, and so what one cadet says to another is presumed to be the truth and reflective of that shared sense of honor.  The honor code at the Academy reads, "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."  An honorable cadet is one who says "I will not cheat because that is not who I am, and my sense of honor will not allow it." Once spies are planted, fear has supplanted a sense of honor in the task of keeping people in line. Fear of punishment is fear of some externally imposed sanction, whereas fear of shame is what keeps honorable men and women in line, and shame is internal (though as we'll see it has an external corollary).  We should certainly know by now, just from observing the lack of integrity and dishonesty that often flourishes in our society as a whole, that once internal control is lost, there are not enough laws, regulators, counselors, clergymen, investigators and policemen in the country to keep people in check. The Air Force Academy would be making a mistake if it thought that upping the ante on catching cheaters was the way to reinforce the honor code. Rather, they need to work hard to mold these young men into people who care about their personal honor, men for whom such low activity would be shameful to them regardless of whether they were caught.

 The external dimension of honor is the honoring and shaming done by a community whose members have internalized a code of honor. Honoring and shaming are public actions taken by these members to either praise or blame the actions of members of the community. In a community like the Air Force Academy, cadets would not be honored for doing what is expected in the honor code (a frequent mistake modern educators make) but for doing some extraordinary deed like helping someone in need, rescuing someone, being the best at some academic or military skill. Shaming would come into play when someone was caught cheating, and would not entail a quiet dismissal from the academy but a public airing of the misdeeds such that no one in the Academy (or beyond its doors, which is even more of a sanction) would want to associate with this person. The sanction of shaming involves the loss of membership in the community, including the loss of help of your fellow members, and it leaves a lasting and somewhat insurmountable scar on the person's public record. 

Honoring and shaming does no good, however, if most members of a community do not take the code of honor seriously because they have not really internalized it. For instance, if one individual calls out another for cheating and has proof, and other members (if pressed) publicly agree, but do not go on to shun the offender so that he or she can no longer meaningfully participate in the community, then the sanction has the opposite effect of looking like hypocrisy and encouraging a jaundiced view on the part of would-be cheaters. 

The somewhat unattractive aspect of honor is the public side of honoring and shaming. Such community behavior goes against our deeply ingrained sense of individualism, privacy, and equality. On the one hand, honoring excellence clashes with our liberal love of equality, which tends toward not wanting anyone to stand out too much or have a valid claim of superiority over anyone else. On the other hand, shaming seems to many people to violate individual rights (perhaps our right to perfect autonomy) and especially the right to privacy, as if the act of cheating on an exam is a purely private act that should not have any bearing on a person's public reputation. 

But past Air Force Academy cheating scandals illustrate only too well why, though we live in a liberal society that cherishes individual rights, freedom, and equality (and we want to keep all of that), we need an honor code upon which society can agree. No amount of spying and sanctions, including expulsion, would handle what is essentially a character problem with some cadets. Extrapolating, no amount of fines, penalties and punishments will come close to mitigating the impact of what are in essence character problems in the general population. If self-control does not come from within, and this condition affects too much of the population, it will be an insurmountable task to impose self-control from without.