Jim Amidon — “The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and responsible citizen.”
That single, simple sentence, which seems to have been written a couple centuries ago, constitutes the only rule of conduct at Wabash College. It seems almost Victorian in tone — “a gentleman and responsible citizen.”
And with the possible exception of college archivist Beth Swift, I’m not sure anyone at Wabash knows how long “The Gentleman’s Rule” has guided student behavior and conduct. Many older alumni remember having only one rule, but few know the origins of it. Fewer still remember talking about it much.
Many critics think it’s an antiquated holdover from another era long ago; an era void of litigation and judicial conflict. Virtually every college in America once operated on an honor code similar to Wabash’s Gentleman’s Rule. Few colleges still have those codes, and most that do also provide students with thick handbooks to guide their behavior. The honor code has been relegated to governing academic honesty.
At Wabash, though, the Gentleman’s Rule is it: the ideal we hold out for our students with hopes that they make the link between the enormous trust we place in them, the freedoms they enjoy, and the responsibilities they alone must shoulder.
Living up to the Gentleman’s Rule is not easy for most 19-, 20-, and 21-year-olds. I discovered that a week ago when I sat with 28 freshman students and two of their student orientation leaders for a 75-minute talk about what the Gentleman’s Rule really means.
I started out our conversation by asking the students — then on campus only 36 hours — to define for me the characteristics of a gentleman. Just as there were 30 different students from 30 different families, there were almost as many definitions.
The definitions I liked best included words like “respected,” “chivalrous,” “ethical,” and “honest.”
Like the rule itself, the words we came up with stand as ideals for the students; targets we want them to shoot for fully knowing they will ultimately fall short at some point.
As I looked into their tired eyes, I knew each student was imagining how he might conduct himself over the next four years — and the years that follow. I could see them wrestling with ethical dilemmas in their minds, when doing the right thing could and would be difficult.
We talked a lot about courage and how much courage it would take to confront a fraternity brother, roommate, or teammate when they were in violation of the Gentleman’s Rule. When was it okay to speak out, to have those conversations?
I guided them through a discussion of what is and is not appropriate behavior under the Gentleman’s Rule. When I asked for examples of potential violations, each student was able to offer something: fighting, cheating, stealing, using insensitive language, treating people badly, and so on.
That part of the talk was most heartening. It demonstrated to me that these young men, alone for the first time in their lives and now personally responsible for their behavior, do know the difference between right and wrong.
Each student could imagine himself breaking the rule and I could tell they were puzzling with the issue of “but what if I don’t get caught.” Then a bright young man looked up and said, “It doesn’t matter if you get caught; your conscious should be your guide.”
“And your mama,” I added. They looked at me curiously. I said, “If you’re really struggling with a decision about what’s right and what’s wrong, put it to the mama test: what if your mother found out?”
The light bulbs went off and they nodded their heads in agreement with the simple, easy-to-understand definition of what it means to be a gentleman.
Wabash hopes to educate its students to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely. In order to accomplish that lofty goal, students are guided by the Gentleman’s Rule and the ideal it represents.
And just as they will flunk tests, fumble footballs, and drop lines on stage, they will occasionally fall short of the ideal. It’s understanding when and how they have fallen short, that each young man makes the critical link between trust and responsibility, which will govern every decision they make for the rest of their lives.
The Gentleman’s Rule may be a simple sentence, but it stands a grand ideal for every student who steps on the Wabash campus.