Honour Above Everything

by Madeline Briggs

My high school had this motto – it was on a plaque in every classroom, repeated at chapel and assembly, hanging on banners around campus: ‘Wisdom more than Knowledge, Service beyond Self, Honour Above Everything’.

I doubt many of my classmates spend a lot of time thinking about it today. Most stuff from high school fades away and becomes irrelevant, and thank goodness for that. I know I’ve tried pretty hard to forget a lot of it. That motto, though – and not even the motto, just that last line – that’s been running through my head a lot today.

It was always the part that got emphasised the most. Maybe because it’s at the end, or because it is, in fact, that part that is vaunted over everything. Honour. Darlington had an Honour Council – I was never on it, because high school – which had a surprising amount of power for a bunch of teens. Yeah, there were faculty advisers, but it was students who were charged with encouraging the trait. Students who ran the council, determined sanctions, and brought the motto off the plaques.

Kids don’t always care what their teachers think of their values, especially when there’s pressure to achieve high grades and get into good universities. But if nothing else is true, it’s that peer pressure is a really effective tool in high school. If all the cool people think cheating is poor form, most teens aren’t going to try it. If stealing will get you shunned by your friends, you’ll consider if it’s really worth it.

There are always a few exceptions, but the system works. Most tests at Darlington are unproctored; teachers aren’t worried about repeating essay prompts years in a row; dorm rooms are left unlocked; backpacks, wallets, cell phones are dropped in hallways without care. I got really, really used to this. When the culture’s been established for eighty-odd years, any new entrants are simply assimilated. You match your values up, or you leave.

Stetson had an Honour Council too, although it was a much younger establishment. When I was interviewing for a seat, in the middle of my freshman year, the president at the time asked how I would discourage academic dishonesty. I told him my experience, and what I had learned from Darlington.

Values are at their most effective when they are ingrained in a culture, and when they are accepted without question. That takes time, and it takes many, many failures before results begin to appear. Failures encourage different tactics. Failures encourage punishments and snappy reactions from people who want to see immediate change. But you can’t build trust by locking book bags in lockers and telling people to trust each other. You can only wait, while things get stolen and broken, and continue to build that culture. You wait for the incidents to get farther and farther apart, until a stolen wallet is an anomaly, not a cause for concern.

Three years later, I was president of that Council. It’d come a long way in those years, and although it wasn’t at Darlington’s levels, the culture was taking root. The downside of this was that, although we surmised that honesty was growing, more and more cases were being reported. Most of these were student reported, a sure sign that the students were getting behind the idea.

And then one day, a case dropped on our desk (and by that I mean into my email). And without specifics, it was one of those cases where – in campus of 2300 with a closely knit Greek life and athletics department – I read the name and groaned out loud. The surest way to test a system of values is to indict one of the cool kids. The surest way to know that a culture isn’t taking root is to see one of the cool kids come up on your roster.

When we saw that name, we thought it was a failure. It was proof that we weren’t making a difference. And that feeling – the idea that we had failed – made us want to lock our values into place, and tell people to respect them even as we stilted their growth. We wanted to make an example.

And right now, I know you all think you know where this going, but you don’t, and that’s why it’s important.

We didn’t have enough evidence to say that the student had committed dishonesty.

And although we were hurt, and worried, and felt like failures, we stuck to our rules. We could not disregard the value we were trying to promote. Honour Above Everything. We dropped the case.

Now, I told you that story to tell you this story. Recently after a morning rowing incident, I was handed down a sanction. The details are largely irrelevant, but it is worth noting that the university hearing board told me, in front of witnesses, and I quote, ‘You did everything right. You did everything that you could, and you did nothing wrong. This sanction is because we have to do something, or people will say that we’re letting you off the hook.’

They made an example out of me, and I understand. They were afraid of being seen as failures, and I understand. They wanted to prove their values, and I understand. They wanted to be seen as proactive, as responding to an incident, and I understand.

But they have subverted their values in the name of encouraging them, and to me, that is the greatest form of dishonour.

Building a culture on values only works if you, the builder, inherently believes that the values are sound. It only works if those around you believe that they are sound, and that they will take hold, and that they will be effective.

If you do not trust the ability of your values to speak for themselves – should they be spoken for at all?

This piece is adapted from its original posting on Madeline Brigg’s blog, which can be found here.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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