Universities, including Christian ones, have become quite comfortable with what some might describe as the “virtue” of honor. Although we may instinctively classify it as a favorable trait, honor—as it exists on college campuses today—has a troubled backstory. What is more, today’s faculty and administrators who esteem honor may not know about its contentious history. In this essay, we briefly trace the American history of “honor” and its ongoing effect on higher education before offering a critique that moves us toward a redeemed version of the concept.
One finds concerns about appeals to honor in some of the prominent moral philosophy textbooks used in early America. For example, in William Paley’s Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), he started with a sharp critique of what he called the Law of Honour:
The Law of Honour… only prescribes and regulates the duties betwixt equals; omitting such as relate to the Supreme Being, as well as those which we owe to our inferiors. For which reason, profaneness, neglect of public worship or private devotion, cruelty to servants, rigorous treatment of tenants or other dependents, want of charity to the poor, injuries done to tradesmen by insolence or delay of payment, with numberless examples of the same kind, are accounted no breaches of honour; because a man is not a less agreeable companion for these vices, nor the worse to deal with, in those concerns which are usually transacted between one gentleman and another.1
In other words, the law of honor served to help “gentlemen” narrow their moral obligations and justify among themselves vice, hypocrisy, and the pursuit of pleasure. Moreover, this honor is the kind that Jesus mentioned the Pharisees sought—honor for themselves (Matt. 6:2; 23:6; Mark 12:39; Luke 20:46).
Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely. (Mark 12:38b–40, NIV)
Interestingly, the corrupt, pharisaical, self-seeking honor became part of the culture of a particular geographic region and gender—the southern gentlemanly ideal. Merton Coulter relates, “The sons of planter aristocrats hated restrictions, for they knew that only slaves were made to be ordered around, and the sons of the aspiring gentry had grown up in communities which recognized few men’s authority and cared little for the law…And besides, a peculiar sense of honor was one of their most highly-developed traits.”2
The effects of this “peculiar sense of honor” were many, but one in particular, related to our purposes here, was the effect a culture of “honor” had on colleges. The honor code of the gentleman undermined the enforcement of rules against cheating in the colleges. Helen Horowitz notes,
Any “code of honor” in the nineteenth century existed only between college men. They regarded it as unthinkable that one of their fellows might tell a member of the faculty that another broke college rules. College men did not inform against each other. They preferred expulsion from the college to the ostracism of classmates that would follow from bearing tales.3
Thus, students often cheated to preserve their honor. Robert Pace wrote of this time, “It seems incongruous to discuss cheating as a method of preserving honor, but for many, that was exactly what it represented. When faced with the possibility of humiliation, the southern code recognized that saving face was more important than conforming to moral or ethical rules of behavior.”4 In other words, the southern culture of honor tended to place much more emphasis upon loyalty and the appearance of honor than academic integrity.5 Not surprisingly, a scholar from that time wrote that at one southern university cheating “had reached phenomenal proportions.”6
As administrators are wont to do, they addressed the problem by creating a strict set of rules governing every aspect of a student’s recitation. Helen Horowitz helpfully summarized the predictable result:
To put it directly, college men and faculty remained at war. Students who assumed the culture of college life avoided any contact with the enemy beyond that required. Knowing they would lose in open conflict, such students turned to deception, using any means to circumvent rules and fool their faculty, including lying and cheating. College men protected each other’s honor, no matter what the offense, even at the risk of expulsion.7
Even today, students’ perception of whether their peer cheats is one of the highest factors correlated with whether students cheat.8
Yet, one of the more curious transformations in higher education is how American academia co-opted this self and group-focused concept of honor for use with academic integrity and moral behavior in general. Over time, educational leaders learned how to use the southern honor code to their advantage. For instance, University of Alabama faculty sent home a report to parents about students’ academic progress and conduct. They also made the reports public at the university. Students did not accept this new academic honor code without a literal fight. The new rules actually helped ignite a series of riots at the university. Although the committee that investigated the riots concluded that the new rules were part of the problem, they kept the rules because, “The system itself, happily combines the principles which operate on the pride and fears of the student, and powerfully excites and brings into action that noble and virtuous emulation which stimulates distinction in his literary attainments, and to pursue with diligence and industry, his college studies.”9 The effectiveness of this kind of code is that a student could then be publicly shamed if they undermined their honor.
The greatest success (with regard to the reduction of cheating) came from using the concept of honor to create an academic honor code. A professor at the University of Virginia created one of the earliest academic honor codes in 1842 after another professor was shot and killed while attempting to settle a disturbance. In an effort to ease tensions between students and the faculty by demonstrating trust in students, one professor offered the resolution: “resolved, that in all future examinations . . . each candidate shall attach to the written answers . . . a certificate of the following words: I, A.B., do hereby certify on my honor that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever.”10 This form of honor code would soon spread among southern and mid-Atlantic colleges and the military academies. Again, the success of these honor codes that developed in southern universities came from the fact that it drew upon the self- or group-oriented concept of honor prevalent among southern and military men.
Today, most honor codes at universities with this notion of honor are still enforced over students’ co-curricular lives—and sometimes even off campus—behavior. At one of these campuses, one administrator proudly told one of us a story about a student who showed someone in another town his fake ID. The person then replied to the student that he must report him to the college honor code, since it prohibited lying both on and off campus.
Although these honor codes are effective, their shaky (self-serving) foundation leads to some problematic outcomes when fully applied. Perhaps the biggest issue is the use of social fear about one’s reputation as a primary motivator for conformity. While this fear certainly leads to effective results (colleges with honor codes tend to see a significant reduction in cheating11), the ends do not justify the means. We do our students a disservice when we inflate their fear of others or their reputation, rather than helping them to rightly order their loving, reverent fear toward God. What is more, a system built upon a self- and group-focused sense of honor seems to incentivize, and in fact reward, the accumulation of such praise. In contrast, the biblical tradition emphasizes that honor is something that we properly show to others such as parents (Matt. 19:19), fellow members of the body of Christ (e.g., “Honor one another above yourselves.” Rom. 12:10; see also 13:7; I Cor. 12:26; Phil. 2:29) and Christ (John 5:23; 2 Thes. 3:1; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Heb. 2:9; 3:3; 2 Peter 1:17; Rev. 5:12-13). Furthermore, Jesus advised that honor was not something that one should seek directly (Luke 14:7-10), although it is a good.
For Christians, therefore, we need to think more deeply about the type of honor we want to encourage among our students. For academic honesty, we should help students think outwardly about making a covenant before God and others to foster integrity. Perhaps at some of our institutions, we need new community covenants instead of honor codes. Framed this way, academic honesty becomes motivated by love of God and others rather than by fear of losing one’s personal honor. Furthermore, if we do encourage honor, biblically speaking, we should focus upon what it means for us to honor parents, each other, and Christ and not simply protecting and seeking our own or our group’s honor—like the Pharisees.
- William Paley, Moral and Political Philosophy in Paley’s Works (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 9.
- E. Merton Coulter, College Life in the Old South (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1928), 65.
- Helen L. Horowtiz, Campus Life: Undergraduate Culture from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 35-36. (emphasis added)
- Robert F. Pace, Halls of Honor: College Men in the Old South (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 27.
- See the chapter on “Integrity” in Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- James Allen Cabiniss, The University of Mississippi: Its First Hundred Years, 2nd ed. (Hattiesburg: College Press of Mississippi, 1971), 49.
- Horowitz, Campus Life, 36.
- McCabe, Butterfield, and Treviño, Cheating in College.
- Report of the Committee of Investigation Who Were Instructed to Enquire into the Causes Which Have Produced the Late Disturbances and Decline of the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa: M.D.J. Slade, 1837), 7-9.
- University of Virginia, “History of the Honor Committee,” https://honor.virginia.edu/history (accessed April 1, 2020).
- Donald L. McCabe, Kenneth D. Butterfield, and Linda Klebe Treviño, Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).