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Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as Viewpoint: Honor Role

Honor Role

Students at the Top of the Academic Heap Should Challenge What’s Normally Taken for Granted, a Parent Argues

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After the candle-lighting ceremony, during which old and new members of the local chapter had pledged to uphold the ideals of the National Honor Society, it was the adults’ turn to speak. One after the other, the school board president, the high school principal, and the district superintendent marched onstage, mouthed a few polite words, then marched off. The superintendent, the most glib of the three, congratulated the NHS members—including my daughter—for being outstanding students and us in the audience for being their parents. He said, "Give yourselves a round of applause," which we lustily did. Then everyone adjourned to the cafeteria for ice cream, punch, and photos.

But something bothered me about the evening, and a whole week passed before I realized what it was. None of the adults who spoke at the induction had said anything about honor. Was this because honor is an archaic concept that went out with dueling pistols? Or was it because concepts go down more easily when left vague and imprecise?

I wasn’t sure. What I did know is that schools use "honor"—derived from the Latin honos, also the root of "honesty"—as if its meaning were self-evident. It isn’t. Students qualify for honor roll and honor societies according to criteria that may actually have little to do with honor as once practiced by cavaliers or now understood by moral philosophers.

Curious, I e-mailed the national office of NHS with a question: What is "honor"? I figured if anyone knew, an organization with the word in its name would. Within 48 hours, I got a reply, but not the one I had expected.

Students qualify for honor roll and honor societies according to criteria that may actually have little to do with honor.

Associate Director David Cordts wrote back that NHS doesn’t have "a separate definition of honor." Instead, since its founding in 1921, it has used four criteria for selecting honor students: scholarship, leadership, service, and character. Cordts explained that NHS leaves "the actual details of the definitions of these terms to the local chapters." The chapter to which my oldest daughter, Brittany, belongs, had defined "scholarship" as having a minimum average of 85 but this year unexpectedly raised the cutoff to 90. Perhaps someone had pointed out that, given grade inflation, half the students in the school were now members, or at least eligible for membership.

Cordts invited me to post my question on the message board on NHS’s Web site. I did, and I got a total of one reply. It came from a chapter adviser who largely repeated what Cordts had already said. I found myself wondering whether the reason no one else shared their ideas of what "honor" meant was because they didn’t have any ideas to share.

"Honor" traditionally has had two meanings, and NHS, though neither Cordts nor the chapter adviser seemed to realize it, reflects the most ancient of them. Like Aristotle, who described honor in his Nicomachean Ethics as "the prize of virtue and the tribute that we pay to the good," NHS views honor as closely related to public approbation. The adviser, for example, called membership in NHS "an honor for being honorable."

So perhaps the question I should have asked in my e-mail was "what does being honorable mean?" In the Aristotelian sense—the only sense which NHS seems to recognize—being honorable means behaving in a manner that wins the respect and praise of others. That is, students are honored with membership for conforming to teachers’ demands, for displaying socially approved values, for acting as if the good opinion of others were an indispensable part of their personal identity and their feelings of self-worth.

It was an obsession with public repute that made medieval knights, Renaissance aristocrats, and gentlemen of the Old South so quick to perceive an insult and so willing to seek revenge in duels. Historians refer to this hair-trigger reaction as "primal honor." Although today people don’t usually resort to pistols at 10 or 20 paces to demonstrate superior pedigree, there may still be something deadly about the concept of honor that prevails at school. For one thing, it rewards conformity to external criteria (scholarship, leadership, etc.), promoting a kind of robotic obedience. For another, it reinforces a stratified viewof high school society. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of Southern Honor, writes, "Since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement."

The typical high school is as rigidly hierarchal as a barnyard, and about as mucky. Students who distinguish themselves in sports or academics can make out OK, earning smiles and privileges from authority, but almost everyone else is a blur to the adults in charge. More often than they receive lessons in math or English, the students receive lessons about where they rank in the school’s social hierarchy and where, as a result, they can expect to rank in life.

Aristotle believed that the impulse toward honor and the dread of dishonor were found only in the aristocratic class. The school system operates as if it believes in a similarly rigid social order, sorting students into a small group of nobles, a slightly larger group of yeomen, and a teeming, faceless mass of peasants. If we want school to operate differently—more democratically, for example—then we must redefine what we mean by "honor."

"Honor" can also mean personal integrity, conscience. In this second sense, it is often equated with moral courage, a term that didn’t appear in English until the 19th century.Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick defined moral courage as people facing "the pains and dangers of social disapproval in the performance of what they believe to be duty." More recently, Maine’s Commission on Ethical and Responsible Student Behavior described moral courage as doing "the right thing even if it’s not popular."

Moral courage is the courage of Socrates swallowing hemlock rather than drop his philosophical inquiries or repudiate his teachings. Or of George Washington accepting appointment as commander in chief and then turning to Patrick Henry and saying, "Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation." Or a handful of non-Jews, the so-called righteous gentiles, risking their lives and the lives of their families to shelter Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Courage has been described as an executive virtue, meaning it enables people to "execute,"or carry out, their purposes. People who lack courage may be too fearful to act or, onceembarked upon an action, too easily intimidated to finish it. For this reason, Samuel Johnson judged courage to be "the greatest of all virtues," explaining that "unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other."

If courage is, in fact, everything writers like Johnson say, then schools should be nurturing it in students. Movies and other forms of popular culture tend to spotlight physical courage, glamorizing ultraviolent acts of bloodshed inflicted in rage or revenge. But democracy may not need muscle-bound warriors in Lycra and black leather as much as it needs morally courageous citizens. After all, the average person is more likely to haveto fight insidious conformity than vampires, aliens, orthe Russian mafia.

Honor isn’t conformity to popular opinion. Rather, it is the courage to stand up to popular opinion.

The difference between the two concepts of honor can be summed up as the difference between inner conviction and outer compulsion. When you picture the students on honor roll or in honor society, it probably isn’t a bunch of cranky nonconformists you see, the kinds of kids who are always testing school rules or questioning teachers’ authority. Probably you see the kinds of kids who quietly obey the rules and their teachers and save theirferocity for competing against each other for precious academic prizes—top grades, admission to AP courses, college scholarships. The students who succeed are those who can best accept external standards as their own.

This is readily apparent in the attitude of honor society members toward service, one of the four criteria for selection. Brittany’s chapter requires members to perform at least 20 hours of community service each semester or be summarily expelled. They can fulfill the requirement in numerous ways, from serving as greeters at parent-teacher conference night to collecting canned food for needy families. It doesn’t matter to most of them what they do, just as long as they accumulate hours. I’m afraid that if the service requirement teaches them anything, it teaches them how to appear caring without actually being so.

To help students understand honor as an inner quality, a matter of individual courage or conscience, would seem to call for a different approach. One night, Brittany complained at dinner that the vice principal at the high school was stopping girls in the hall and measuring the length of their skirts. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? Brittany asked. Good question! My wife and I told her that if she felt so strongly about the injustice of the dress code, then she ought to do something about it. Like what? Brittany wanted to know. Like drawing up a petition. Or—my wife and I said it almost simultaneously—wearing a skirt (Brittany usually wears jeans, tight ones, to school) as a kind of political statement. Some of you may think that this last suggestion was irresponsible of us, that we must be the worst parents since Ma Barker to encourage our daughter to provoke a confrontation with school officials. But in her world, the dress code is a big issue, bigger even than the war in Iraq, and we were trying to teach her not to ignore the promptings of her conscience. Courage is like a muscle; it gets stronger with use.

A couple of days later, Brittany did wear a skirt, although the only ones who may have been agitated by it were the boys in her classes. The vice principal never checked her for a possible dress-code violation. Brittany came home from school feeling emboldened. She had discovered her capacity to challenge rules, not just follow them.

It is this capacity that constitutes honor in the most modern and meaningful sense. "Honor" as the prickly pride of the duelist belongs to another era, another culture, but perhaps no more so than the version reflected in honor rolls and honor societies—as an example of, and a reward for, approved school behavior. NHS describes its members as "role models for other students." What, exactly, are they modeling? Is it scholarship? Leadership? Service? Character? Or is it something else, such as the material benefits of submitting, mind and body, to convention?

Honor isn’t conformity to popular opinion. Rather, it is the courage to stand up to popular opinion. Honor isn’t obedience to authority. Rather, it is the courage to criticize authority. Honor isn’t devotion to external goals. Rather, it is the courage to pursue personal goals. Every teacher should know this, and every school should teach it. There is no honor in doing anything less.

Vol. 16, Issue 2, Pages 46-48

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