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The Materialization of Honor


I just finished reading an excellent article by Winnie Hu that was published in the NY Times five years ago. In her article, Ms. Hu asks the question, "As Honor Students multiply, who really is one?" In an age where students get a blue ribbon for showing up, what does it actually mean to be a "student of honor"?

As many colleges and universities tighten their admissions requirements and selectivity increases, students are looking for a leg up, for a "look at me!", for a stamp of uniqueness that will set them apart from the 'herd'. Out of this aspiration, the act of joining an Honor Society (if invited) appears to be a no brainer. But with new Honor Societies sprouting up like dandelions in the Spring, as Hu notes, the "currency is (being) cheapened". The value of honor on the market is going down. Or, is it perhaps that the true meaning of honor has been lost?

The information shared above is old news: it is not getting any easier to get into college, nor is it getting any easier to set one self apart from the field. "Everyone" seems to have written a novel, travelled as a volunteer to a foreign continent to build houses for those in need, starred in the school play/film/musical/YouTube channel, been active in the student government, aced their high school courses, and still had time to bake Mom a birthday cake. Perhaps this is over exaggerating things a bit, but there is truth within this aggrandizement. Whatever happened to being a plain good ol' person deep down to the very core? When did honor get materialized?

In reading another article the other day titled "The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking"by Finlo Rohrer of the BBC News Magazine, I was struck by the similarities between the two. In his article, Rohrer surmises that we are losing the ability to stroll without purpose or destination. He notes that walking is a goal-driven activity in the West. We walk for fitness, we walk to move while talking to someone on the cell phone, we walk to exercise the dog, we walk to get from point A to point B because it will be faster than driving in traffic. But aimless, luxurious, creative-thinking-inspiring-walking is not often done anymore. Gone are the days of Charles Dickens, Virginia Wolfe, Thoreau who walked and walked and walked - just to think. Walking, like honor, is another example of goodness in action turned to resume builder and to-do item checklist. 

In working with students on their college application essays, those who have not travelled to third world countries and discovered a new species of mushroom bemoan the fact they they "have nothing special in their lives to write about". The students who say this to me are each exceptionally good people with high integrity, clear and strong moral compasses holding bright dreams for the good of humanity.  They don't do good things to be able to put it on their resume, they do good in the world because they are good. Where is the box to check off for being "Authentically Good" on the Common Application? When did being on the Honor Roll top being a Person of Honor? 

Perhaps it is not a surprise that test scores, trophies and certificates top the charts when it comes to admission to top colleges, for the West is indeed fixated on outward showiness vs. inner goodness. And certainly colleges and universities wish to fill their ranks with students who will go on to achieve great things, and out of those great things, give a shout out (and preferably a donation) to their alma mater. These education institutions do indeed need to make money and sustain themselves. And, attaining a degree from a higher educational institution is still a mark of achievement and sets one up for more opportunities in one's life ahead. But when can the valuing of honor take place within this system?

Students these days need to play the game if they want to go on to college. What I urge my students to do though, is to hold honor for themselves within the game's process; trust that while "being a really good person" is not the best thing to put on your resume, it will, in the long run, take them where they want to go. If there are any college admissions officials out there reading this, I would urge you as well to seek out that authentic string of goodness that weaves through a college application. We can't all save elephants in Africa, some of us need to stay home and tend the garden, help our little sister with her homework, be a good neighbor. In essence, I argue and pose that in this type of simplicity of goodness there is value, there is honor. More lasting honor than in the Honor Roll society certificate given to a student for achieving straight As in mathematics while being a total jerk all the while. 

Admissions officers: choose to see the good. High school students: don't just do something to add to your achievement to do list. Do good. More importantly, be good. Be honorable. Like attracts like. Keep mindful of your inner honor compass; it will not lead you astray. I promise.