The Role and Value of Honor Today: A Roundtable

By Todd, Mary; Soule, Katherine R. et al. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

The Role and Value of Honor Today: A Roundtable


Todd, Mary, Soule, Katherine R., Smathers, Diane G., Singer, Tara, Meadows, Linda, Christakis, Michael N., Baker, Jerry, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


As one who has worked in honors education on several college campuses, I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about honor--the word holds different meanings in different contexts: "I'm honored to be here ...," the Queen bestowing birthday honors, Scouting pledges that begin "on my honor," or marriage vows to love, honor, comfort and keep are just a few examples. Since even before accepting this position, I have been thinking about the value of honor to those we invite to membership and the sustained value of remaining an active member. We are currently working with membership consultants who ask those same questions.

Noted philosopher and public intellectual Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the notion of honor in his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. He examines four distinct behaviors tied to honor--dueling, human enslavement, foot binding, and honor killings--and chronicles how redefining honor has led to changes in social norms regarding these activities. Appiah believes that "Attending to honor ... can help us both to treat others as we should and to make the best of our own lives." He extends that thought by adding, "if we can find the proper place for honor now, we can make the world better."

Making the best of ourselves and the world--such goals are often held before graduates by commencement speakers to encourage both individual personal growth and lifelong learning. But these goals also summarize well the mission of honor societies.

Since 2006, Phi Kappa Phi has participated in an informal gathering of like-minded honor societies. Together with the secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the executive directors of Sigma Xi, Omicron Delta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi meet annually to discuss common issues and concerns and to share news and initiatives.

Known simply as the Honors Caucus, our meetings rotate among our office locations--the group was welcomed at Phi Kappa Phi's newly renovated offices in the spring.

In 2011-12 the Caucus focused its work on the development of a statement that is posted on each of our websites. Entitled "Why Accept Our Invitation?" the document was drafted in response to the plethora of honor societies available to college students these days and to address the reasons students should take seriously an invitation from Caucus societies. "Our invitations," the document explains, "recognize distinguished performance in study, research, or leadership, sustained over a period of years," for the purpose of each of our organizations "is to celebrate excellence in academics and integrity of character." You can find the statement at http://www.phikappaphi.org/downloads/caucus_statement.pdf

When it was decided that the summer 2014 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum would focus on the theme of honor, I thought immediately of asking my colleagues in the Caucus to join in something of a roundtable. We are, by the nature of our positions, all people whose daily work is infused with the word honor. As the idea took hold, we decided to ask the chairs of our respective boards to join us in the project.

So what follows is a "conversation in print" on the role and value of honor in today's society or culture. Sprinkled among the comments are additional thoughts on the role and value of honor societies.

Jerry Baker, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

The role of honor in today's society is to create a plumb line against which we measure actions and behavior. We state that we honor someone, which might mean that we recognize them for a noble action or because of a position they hold. Those honorable attributes contribute to this plumb line and give us a measurement to which we hold ourselves accountable. When we honor someone we frequently are making an inference about character. We imply that the individual is honest and trustworthy. There is also a linkage between being honored and being honorable. …

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