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 than to 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.
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. 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. We remember those who have served our country honorably and occasionally we lament politicians who have behaved 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 firsthand 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, those students who help tutor local children after school, or the whistleblower who takes a stand against corruption. These are all examples of people acting in honorable ways.
In 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; at Penn State 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. What honor is not is success at any cost. The 17th century French writer François de La Rochefoucauld still reminds us that a person’s “honor ought always to be measured by the methods they made use of in attaining it.”
In its simplest sense honor is knowing what is right and doing it. The challenge, of course, is knowing what is right. But the very act of seeking out that knowledge is itself honorable. So I believe in honor in all of these myriad senses, because at the core of it all is the notion that we are to strive for excellence in service to others and in so doing we become better people, those in our community will benefit, and our world will become a better place.
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