This I Believe: Honor

You may be familiar with NPR’s resurrection of the program “This I Believe.” I have been meaning to write an essay on this topic and this week I finally found some time to do that during my trip. I still need to trim this down below 500 words (it is at 729) but I will go ahead and share it here. Feel free to comment.

I believe in honor

I think I have always tried to live my life in a way that might be considered “honorable.” I can remember quite vividly a moment in the 5th grade when a classmate hit me, trying to start a fight, and hearing my father’s voice in my head saying, “It takes a stronger man to take a punch and that give one.” “I’m not going to fight you,” was all I said. I believe that my Christian faith, confirmed at a young age, was vital in developing my sense of honor but it wasn’t until I became an academic and the dean of an honors college that I really thought about what “honor” means.

Medal of Honor photo

Honor is a word that we hear so often and in so many contexts that it is easy to forget its meaning. What complicates matters further is that honor is a very complex concept. My academic field is in ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature but more specifically in exegesis, the process by which meaning is drawn out from a text. Most of my research has focused upon the ancient rabbis’ interpretation of Scripture, however the concepts can be readily applied to any text, whether written, spoken, or in any other media. It is common place in interpreting texts to find that any given word of phrase can have different meanings in different contexts.

Honor is one such word that often carries not only different meanings in different contexts, but it can have multiple meanings in any given context. We are perhaps most familiar with the notion of honor as doing that which is viewed by the culture or community as noble or right. In today’s political climate it is hard not to think of those who speak of serving our country with honor or the politicians who accuse the other of behaving dishonorably. In these cases the use of honor implies a pattern of moral behavior, a “right” way of doing things. When one is acting honorably or with honor they are upholding certain moral standards of conduct. I saw this first hand while living in Louisiana when people from around the country came to the aid of those whose lives had been devastated by hurricane Katrina. We see it in the person who stops a robbery in progress or those students who help tutor local children after school, all of these are people acting in honorable ways.

SHC Honor Scholars MedalIn academia we speak of honors in a different way. Every year students graduate “with honors” in their chosen field. Their diplomas indicate the academic honors that they have just received; Schreyer Honors College Scholars receive a medal that symbolizes their academic achievements. These honors are accolades, praise for the distinctive and exceptional work that they have done. So honor can be something that a culture or community considers worthy of esteem, it may be doing something that benefits others more than self, or it may be accolades or awards given to someone for work that is considered outstanding. In the 17th century the French writer François de La Rochefoucauld brought together the notion of honor as both accolades and character when he said that a person’s “honor ought always to be measured by the methods they made use of in attaining it.”

I believe in honor, in all of these senses because at the core of all of these definitions is the notion that we are to strive for excellence and in so doing we become better people, those in our community will benefit, and our world will become a better place. It is true, as the sociologist might warn us, that different cultures in other times and places held as honorable practices that we may find objectionable. But when we as a society become jaded and dismiss honor as a relic and something to be sniffed at as a trite token of a bygone age, we diminish ourselves.

I believe that what we need to do as a society is to reassert what we believe to be honorable and right. We must establish for ourselves, our students, our leaders, and our community the notion of doing what is right, placing the well being of others before ourselves, and rewarding and rejoicing in such actions. I believe that our nation must not simply be a place of excellence but of honor.

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