Here’s a quick story: While on Washington and Lee University Campus in Virginia, a few years ago, I walked every morning past the library on my way to the School of Media Studies, where my office was.
I noticed that students would leave their backpacks in a pile at the door and walk into the library with just books in their hands. I could see the corners of laptops sticking out of their backpacks, and I was immediately alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.
I wanted to ask them whether they weren’t worried about losing their valuables, but I was a stranger in town, and I felt too shy to walk up to students I don’t know and ask them awkward questions.
Later in the week, I was sitting in the large student canteen, which had a seating area and a serving area. I observed several students leaving their cell phones, cameras and laptops on their tables to go for their food in the serving area. Again, I was baffled by their apparent lack of regard for their valuables.
It was a busy canteen with all kinds of people bobbing and weaving through the tables. Anyone could just grab one or more of these unattended gadgets and disappear with it. I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, so I turned to the professor I was having lunch with and asked, “Why does everyone leave their valuables unattended on this campus?”
Professor Aly Colón (a truly great man – feel free to Google him) smiled and said, “Because of the Honour Code”.
Like all old and distinguished institutions, Washington and Lee University is steeped in rich tradition and conventions. One of such conventions is the Honour Code. It is basically a code of conduct established in the 1840s, when it was still an all-male college, to govern the behaviour of all students.
The purpose was to ensure that each student would “conduct himself as a gentleman”, which basically meant that a W&L student would never lie, cheat, or steal.
Almost 180 years after its establishment, the code continues to enjoy the strictest observance and adherence from the entire student body. Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “That can never happen in Ghana”. Perhaps you’re right. But I hope you’re not.
The most unique aspect of the honour code is that it is administered by the students themselves. It is not imposed on them by the authorities. They own the code, and they live by it because they believe in it.
The code has applications and implications that go far beyond leaving expensive stuff unattended. Students of W&L choose when to write their own final exams, and they sit the papers unsupervised. Imagine that! While some institutions in Ghana are conducting full body searches before allowing students to write exams, there exists a place in this world where students sit exams when they want, where they want, invigilate themselves AND DO NOT CHEAT!
But why not? Why do the students of W&L stick to the honour code? Why don’t they take advantage of the fact that nobody is watching them to lie, steal and cheat for their personal advancement? After all, if you can get away with it, why not? Right?
Well it depends on your definition of honour. The Washington Post published an article a couple of years ago on W&L’s honour code. They asked a 20 year old undergrad why she was so confident that her colleagues were sticking to the code. “I highly doubt any of my peers would take advantage of it,” she said. “None of us want to disappoint each other. If somebody cheats, it’s an insult to the entire community.”
My people, that’s the message right there! Honour is not an individual thing, it is a communal character. When you are dishonest, you are not only bringing shame to yourself, you are breaching the trust placed in you by the community. You are telling those who believed in you that you are smart and they are stupid.
At Washington and Lee, you get expelled after one breach of the Honour Code. No second chances. If you are given such trust and you abuse it, you lose the right to be part of their enlightened society.
Now, is that the case in Ghana? What happens when people are caught lying, cheating or stealing – especially in public office? Are they removed from the position of trust? Or are they protected, preserved and often promoted?
What message are we sending to the outside world about Ghanaian honour? Is it part of our communal character, or do we think Honour “can never happen in Ghana”? Well, perhaps you’re right, but I hope you’re wrong.
My name is Kojo Yankson, and I am a Ghanaian. That means when I promise, I promise on my Honour! Do you?
GOOD MORNING, GHANAFO!