October 4, 2013

A lesson about honor from a high school football coach


The traditional approach survives at the nation's service academies (though it has been slightly amended at Annapolis). In general, however, honor codes have been watered down. The reporting requirement is vanishing. Yet without its communal aspect, an honor code is a redundancy, given that every academic institution bans cheating, without regard to whether the students sign an undertaking not to engage in it.

The literature on cheating strongly suggests that among students inclined to cheat, concern about what one's peers will think plays little deterrent role. On the other hand, the fear of formal punishment plays a major role, and students are significantly less likely to cheat when they believe that other students will turn them in.

The notion that students should monitor one another recalls the communal nature of the traditional understanding of honor. Those who are honorable want to be surrounded by others who are honorable. Thus the prominent Presbyterian pastor John Hall, in an 1877 pamphlet titled "Questions of the Day," explained: "If a 'man of honor' violates any of the rules of honor's code ... his associates know what to do with him. They cut him." The cutting was not literal but figurative. In practice, Hall was saying, the dishonorable man's associates write him out of their company. Honor itself, as traditionally understood, requires nothing less.

An honor code properly understood, then, is an agreement not between a school and each of its individual students, but between the school and its entire student body. "We are an honorable people," the students are swearing. "We don't want the dishonorable around any more than you do. You can trust us to root them out."

At the same time, the ultimate reward for honor is within; it comes from raising people for whom good character is an end in itself. In her book "Liberalism With Honor," the political scientist Sharon Krause puts it this way: "In contrast to public honors, honor as a quality of character is an internal phenomenon. One can be true to the code without receiving public recognition for it." Thus "the honorable student adheres to the honor code out of self-respect, not from fear of reprisals or the promise of public approval."

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