The first question that alumni ask the college president, when they call or visit, is not, how is the basketball team doing? Or, what is our current U.S. News & World Report ranking? But rather: How is the honor system working? Is it still strong? The reason they do that is that the honor system is much more than a judicial mechanism. Our honor system reflects our deepest commitments. It embodies our highest aspirations. That’s why on campus tours admissions staff proudly mention our honor system to prospective students.
If at Hood you’ve learned the way of honor, then that’s the most valuable benefit you could take from this institution. More to be treasured than any other knowledge or any other skills. It’s far more important to graduate with honor than to graduate with honors.
As we look around us, at corporations like Enron and at some people in federal and state government and, of course, at so much of modern celebrity culture, we shake our heads and we wonder, will people do anything to win? Will people do anything to achieve what they think of as “success”? We know that we may have to be a community that exists a little bit apart from the rest of society. An honor system reflects a community’s joint decision to live a different way: The end does not justify the means.
In my classes, we sometimes debate which is the stronger influence: nature or nurture. Our genes or our environment? Both are important, but don’t ever overlook something even stronger: Your own free will. Your own ability to decide; in fact your own responsibility to choose.
One of my great heroes, Samuel Johnson, said, “To be a mere product of your environment is to be damned.” In moral development, if you act morally only because there’s a teacher in the room, or because you will be rewarded for your good deeds and punished for misbehaving, well, that’s pretty low on the moral totem pole, and people will be sure to check their silver spoons after you leave a party at their house.
Like democracy, an honor system is simply more exciting, more thrilling than all the alternatives, and it’s the only way that really takes us seriously as moral actors.
As alums, you will have a role to play in the future of Hood College. Part of that responsibility is quite tangible: Your instructors may not always remember your name, but our development office, I promise you, will never forget you. The college depends upon your support in order to achieve greater academic excellence.
But there is another, closely related, excellence-which is the regular practice of disciplined integrity, a sense of honor, a nobility of character: there is this other excellence that I hope you will also remember us for, and I hope look out for in the future when you stop to think about Hood.
You will know how to express that concern and to offer that support. A start is simply to continue the tradition of asking, “How is the honor system doing?” Or to tell our administrators, “It mattered a lot to me when I was at Hood.” For this institution, as well as for every one of us individually, what we read in Shakespeare is true. In Richard II, Thomas Mowbray says to King Richard: “Mine honour is my life, both grow in one; Take honour from me and my life is done.”
David Hein is professor and chairman of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Hood College.