This I Believe: Honor

Last week I recorded my essay for our local WPSU “This I Believe” program. It can be heard on Thursday 18 December 2008 at 5:45 pm OR right now online!

WPSU’s This I Believe

I Believe in Honor

Contributor: Christian Brady
State College, PA
County: Centre County
Heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition on December 18, 2008

Listen to This I Believe

I can remember quite vividly a moment in the 5th grade when a classmate hit me, trying to start a fight. David P. was a good foot shorter than I was. He had to reach up to land a decent blow on my chin. My instinct was to hit back, but I remembered my father saying, “It takes a stronger man to take a punch than to give one.” I looked at David and said, “I’m not going to fight you,” and I walked away. The other boys standing around booed and hooted, but David didn’t follow me. In fact, from that day on, none of the boys ever bothered me again.

I was hardly Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting at the lunch counter. Yet with this simple act, I learned a tremendous amount about myself and the true notion of honor: Know what is right and do it. Of course, I would not realize that lesson until much later in life. And many such moments go into building and developing our core convictions. It wasn’t until I became an academic and the dean of the Schreyer Honors College that I really thought about what “honor” means.

We hear the word honor so often and in so many contexts that it is easy to forget its meaning. “Honor” may mean acting in way our society considers noble by our society. It may mean, to be held in high esteem by others. In academia we speak of “honors” almost entirely in terms of the awards that a scholar acquires. Every year students graduate “with honors” in their chosen field. At Penn State Schreyer Honors College Scholars receive a medal that symbolizes their academic achievements. These honors are accolades, praise for exceptional work and prestigious awards.

I would be hypocritical if I said that I think this practice of recognition is wrong. I DO think that we in the academy are in danger of fostering the “win at all costs” environment we so often criticize. I remember, when I was a senior working on my undergraduate thesis, going to section of the library stacks. Two entire shelves of books–the very books I needed–were gone. It turns out a graduate student in our program had removed them, to make sure other students would not have access to them.

Honor can something a community considers worthy of esteem, or it may be awards for outstanding work. Honor is not success at any cost. In its simplest sense honor is knowing what is right and doing it. The challenge, of course, is knowing what is right. The very act of seeking out that knowledge is itself honorable. As I tell prospective honors students, we are not just looking for the “smartest guys in the room.” Instead, we are looking for the smartest people who want to use their intelligence to help other people in the room and especially those outside. This I believe.

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