The Chronicle Review

Honor Among Scholars

Mark Peterson

Some damaging practices, like binge drinking, are still considered honorable within certain academic subcultures. A college student (above), participating in a study of heavy drinking, approaches a beer bong.
October 03, 2010

Praising Caesar as a Colossus who "doth bestride the narrow world," Shakespeare's Cassius tells Brutus that "we petty men ... peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves." Of course, it is not the graves that are dishonorable but the men who end up in those graves, after leading lives tainted by skulduggery. Nevertheless, there can be honor even among thieves, and dishonor even among scholars, men and women who have been intimate with Shakespeare, Spinoza, and the Scriptures.

Dishonor in higher education is possible only because honor is so fundamental to the idea of a university. Honor is the engine that drives us to make and share discoveries. We volunteer to cover an ailing colleague's classes or give a book to an indigent student because it is the honorable thing to do. And we shudder at revelations that Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology at Harvard, may have fudged data in his studies of primate behavior; that several books by James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida, appropriated others' words verbatim without attribution; and that Alexander Kemos, the third-ranking administrator at Texas A&M University, lied about his doctorate.

While we are appalled but not shocked to find fraudulent bankers and deceitful politicians, disgraceful behavior within a university is especially distressing. It is a betrayal of the trust that is essential to a community of scholars. "Say it ain't so!" we want to shout at the eminent historian who concocted sources, the college president who faked his credentials, the coach who channeled illicit payments to student-athletes. A discovery that one experiment has been misrepresented or one manuscript forged can begin to erode the entire body of collective knowledge.

"The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not also a man of honor," notes Sir Colenso Ridgeon in George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. There is, of course, no necessary correlation between intelligence and virtue, and to find examples of brilliant scoundrels, it is not necessary to look to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Just look around the nearest university.

"What is honor?" asks Falstaff, who concludes that it is a vacuous abstraction, merely "a word." Yet, even though John Dryden dismissed it as "but an empty bubble," the word has spread. Particularly on college campuses, honor echoes like a carillon—in honors courses, honors colleges, honor societies, honor rolls. Graduation ceremonies dispense honorary degrees as well as diplomas inscribed cum laude—with honor. It is true that, in Book 9 of The Republic, Plato has Socrates divide humanity into three classes: "lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain." And if the categories are mutually exclusive, then the university, while a magnet for lovers of wisdom, would not be a natural home for lovers of honor (or, especially in these lean times, lovers of gain). Nevertheless, the principle that there is honor even among scholars, that the love of wisdom is itself worthy of honor, is proclaimed by the mottoes of the University of Kiev—"Utilitas honor et gloria" (Utility, honor, and glory)—and the U.S. Military Academy ("Duty, Honor, Country"). The college fraternity Kappa Delta Rho pledges "Honor Super Omnia" (Honor Above All Things), and students at Texas A&M University recite by heart the "Aggie Code of Honor": "Aggies do not lie, cheat, or steal nor tolerate those who do." In Boulder, Colo., students submit completed exams along with an affirmation: "On my honor as a University of Colorado student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized assistance." But what is the honor of a University of Colorado student? Members of academic communities are forever avowing their honor, despite and because of contrary evidence.

In his new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Norton, 2010), Kwame Anthony Appiah answers Falstaff's question by defining honor as "an entitlement to respect." An entitlement, to be sure, is not the same as respect itself. One can conclude from Appiah's definition that to be honorable is not to subordinate everything to reputation but rather to act so as to be worthy of respect, regardless of whether anyone actually grants it. Appiah distinguishes between two kinds of honor—"positive recognition respect" and "esteem." Positive recognition respect is what we accord individuals simply because they belong to certain peer groups—vintners, dental hygienists, firefighters, knights of the Round Table—regardless of whether they have in fact individually done anything extraordinary to earn our respect. Esteem, by contrast, is a matter of merit, and it is inherently hierarchical. While we might accord all baseball players positive recognition respect, a batter who hit below .250 would not earn enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. We can respect all violinists but acknowledge that there was only one Heifetz.

To the extent that higher education aspires to be a meritocracy, in which the best students receive the highest grades and the best professors the most illustrious titles, universities are excellent laboratories for the study of honor. Appiah, who has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other honors, is himself among the most esteemed of contemporary academics. But, though he holds a prestigious chair in philosophy at Princeton University, in his book he does not address questions about honor in higher education. Instead he devotes a chapter to each of three "moral revolutions" whose success he ascribes to the reversal of honor codes. Dueling among English gentlemen, foot-binding in China, and slavery along the Atlantic were each, Appiah notes, initially supported by appeals to honor. In 1829 the Duke of Wellington challenged the Earl of Winchilsea to pistols at 12 paces because it was considered the honorable response to calumny. Until the demise of the Manchu dynasty, just after the turn of the 20th century, Chinese women signaled their refinement by contorting their feet into a lovely but painful lotus shape. And until the trade was banned by Britain, in 1807, white slaveholders purchased African laborers in part to advertise their own elevated rank. Appiah devotes a fourth chapter to an incomplete revolution, the campaign to end honor killing—the murder of a woman whose alleged sexual activity brings opprobrium on her family—in contemporary Pakistan.

Honor and morality, as he notes, are independent variables. Even as slaveholding was considered a badge of honor by the colonial elite, cogent arguments were made against it as morally repugnant. However, Appiah argues, it was not until honor was recruited to assist morality that the peculiar institution was dismantled on the plantations of the Western Hemisphere. Slavery was—and is—wrong, but what caused the moral revolution against it was the novel conviction that owning human beings was also dishonorable. William Wilberforce's abolitionist movement became a struggle to restore England's national honor. Similarly, opponents of both dueling and foot-binding spelled out their iniquities. Yet those claims, while necessary, were insufficient without a belief that the practices also violated standards of honor.

When that belief took hold, the conversion was rapid and complete, like a chemical reaction in which the introduction of a trace element instantaneously transforms the entire contents of a test tube. Within decades, dueling was being ridiculed for bringing dishonor to an effete aristocracy, and gentlemen who previously would not have married brides with unbound feet now considered women with bound feet unworthy mates. In the case of honor killing, Appiah contends that moral suasion in itself will not end the loathsome practice unless that suasion serves to alter the culture's honor code: "Honor killing will only perish when it is seen as dishonorable." If and when that time comes, as it has for dueling, slavery, and foot-binding, earlier attitudes will seem bizarre. People will ask, says Appiah, "What were we thinking? How did we do that for all those years?"

Let's apply to academe Appiah's analysis of how honor and morality can be wed, and of the mayhem that can result when the two are severed.

A sense of personal honor motivates individuals to do what is worthy of respect and avoid doing what induces shame. However, we can talk about national honor—for Americans, it was affirmed when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and it was besmirched by the officially sanctioned torture at Guantánamo—because honor is conferred and denied within communities that share a code of honor. To the extent that we identify with a group, our honor is invested in the actions of our cohorts.

Yet, within the grouping called academe, just as I would not take credit for a colleague's discovery of the mechanism behind Alzheimer's, I would not accept blame for another's arrest for arson. Collective dishonor is not the same as collective guilt. When Binghamton University's basketball team became embroiled in scandal last year, specific Bearcat players who were arrested for theft and drugs and administrators who looked the other way were guilty of serious infractions, but the entire community of students, faculty members, administrators, and alumni felt the dishonor. On the other hand, William H. Gass's novels and essays bring honor to everyone at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is a professor emeritus.

Misdeeds are not necessarily more rampant on college campuses than in brokerage houses, law firms, or shopping malls. But some seem common: plagiarism; grade-fixing; doctoring sponsored research to please the sponsor; sabotage of rivals; conflict of interest; abuse of laboratory subjects; fabricating credentials. Most of these are illegal and unethical as well as dishonorable.

However, echoing the examples that Appiah discusses, a few invidious practices are still considered honorable within certain academic subcultures. Binge drinking is not only widespread; a famous national study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health in 1997 found that almost half of the students surveyed reported downing four or five drinks in rapid succession within the previous two weeks. It also distinguishes the "well rounded" undergraduate from the "nerd" on many campuses. At colleges with high drinking rates, 34 percent of other students reported harassment from binge drinkers. Hollywood celebrates college life as a long, merry bender; a poster advertising College (2008) shows a hung-over student bent above a toilet bowl. In popular culture, the bespectacled grind supplies papers and answers to his less bookish fellows, but, though he gets the grades, it is the smooth—and bibulous—guy who gets the girl. Many consider it more shameful to be seen in the library than at a beer bust and take pride in their alma mater's designation as "party school."

Though not universal, such attitudes are pernicious. Inebriation endangers physical and psychological health and obstructs learning. Binge drinkers squander educational opportunities that others are denied. Such arguments can and must be made, but they are not likely to end binge drinking unless they are joined to a change in the culture's honor code. If students begin to believe that not only is it not awesome to be soused but that it is dishonorable to put themselves out of commission and into a stupor, then declining an additional drink will be deemed worthy of respect. Sobriety will suddenly become the new cool.

Similarly, 75 percent of American undergraduates admit to cheating during their college careers. In other countries in which I have taught, education is conceived of as communal, and it is honorable to share answers with fellow students, dishonorable to withhold assistance. In the United States, collaborative test-taking, when not just a lazy river to a passing grade, is more a matter of flouting fussy rules. But there are sound reasons to discourage cheating. It makes a mockery of individual responsibility and subverts the integrity of academic credentials. It encourages slipshod learning, producing graduates unqualified to teach a class, prepare taxes, or perform surgery. It is inherently dishonest. But the way to reduce its incidence is to make it dishonorable, to convince test-takers that relying on themselves is worthy of esteem. The "gentleman's C" is not worthy of a gentleman; true gentility earns its grades. As with dueling, foot-binding, and slaveholding, cheating will end when the honor code is altered, when respect is accorded those whose work is their own.

In cynical, selfish times, honor, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. Though it is itself founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, honor comes to seem like a foppish posture. Wisely defined, however, in universities and elsewhere, it is applied ethics, a standard and strategy for living as we should.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and vice president for membership at the National Book Critics Circle.