The System vs. The Honor System: From Deflategate to Testing Tweets

The System vs. The Honor System:
From Deflategate to Testing Tweets

delfateWhen my friends and I played basketball in our driveways as kids, we had an honor system for fouls: When you fouled, you called a foul on yourself and gave up the ball to the kid you fouled. You tried not to foul, but sometimes you accidentally did. We’d argue sometimes about whether or not something was a foul, but basically if you fouled someone on purpose or didn’t own up to your accidental foul, the other kids considered you a bad egg.

When I started watching refereed games, openly intentional fouls struck me at first as unsportsmanlike in the extreme. But as any basketball fan can tell you, they are simply part of the game at that level. Intentional fouls are part of a standard clock-management strategy for a team that is losing with a few seconds left. If the winning team has the ball, it can stall until the clock runs out. So the defensive team immediately commits a foul, stopping the clock. The winning team gets a chance to cement the victory with a free throw, but if it misses, the losing team gets a chance at possession. Nobody thinks any the worse of a player for committing one. He is breaking the rules, but because there is a clearly defined process—a person who monitors the rules and a known penalty for breaking the rules—the system becomes part of the game.

It’s quite unlikely that whoever wrote the rules about fouls, free throws, and the clock really intended that fouls would ever be strategically useful, but that’s the game and everyone understands it. Seasoned players also intentionally foul routinely if the opponent’s chance of scoring seems very high and the team isn’t yet in foul trouble. May as well foul and make the guy shoot free throws than just let him have the two points for free. In any case, “breaking the rule” is not a moral decision; it’s just a risk-benefit decision—the transgression’s occurrence and its consequence are extrinsic to the player. There’s a system, and players and coaches are expected to work that system.

Good basketball players treat the “rules” very differently than golfers, who spend a lot of time outside the view of the marshals. Golfers are largely expected to self-police and have been known to forfeit after committing trivial accidental rule violations. (Imagine LeBron James forfeiting a championship series game because he accidentally fouled someone and the referee didn’t notice.)

Now consider the woes of Lance Armstrong. From the honor-system perspective, he’s a cheat and a fraud. But if we think of him like a basketball player, it’s a little murkier. There were rules, there was a complex system of enforcement and consequences, and he worked that system (along with the legal system) successfully. Certainly he transgressed the rules, and ultimately the system trapped him and punished him. But for a while it worked out pretty well. And while he’s admitted shame about viciously slandering colleagues, he seems still to think that his actual wins were legitimate, with the drugs and the careful preparation for the drug testing all part of the game.

Somewhere in between, we have the Patriots and (allegedly) Tom Brady. Is deflating a football like moving your golf ball to a better lie? Or is it like a sneaky foul in basketball: breaking the rules to be sure, but all part of the game and the referees’ responsibility to notice and deal with? Personally, I think it’s cheating, because if you can’t admit it when you’re caught, it suggests you knew it was not okay all along.

Is this relevant to education?

I think so. I think some educators view state tests and their related accountability systems more as “a system” than an honor system. And the more rules and regulators there are, the more this is encouraged. If I have to wait for an official from downtown to come unseal my tests and watch me administer them, I am clearly not expected to be working on my honor, right? It’s tempting—almost kind of conspiratorially fun—to take risks like sneaking into the test coordinators’ office and steaming open the seal for a sneak preview.

All the more so for the students.

Of course kids are going to tweet during the test, and it’s hard to fault them too much because they don’t even directly benefit. In fact, from a certain angle, they are solving a problem creatively, collaboratively, and in a technologically-enabled way. Remember how in training, Ender and Captain (to-be) Kirk hack their respective computer systems? Their path to victory in an artificial system involves breaking the rules of that artificial system, and we generally read that as clever, outside-the-box thinking.

If I am a student doing that, sure I risk getting busted, but it’s not as if I ever pledged my sacred honor. The system doesn’t even give me credit for having any.

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