A History of the Honor Principle
Welcome to the 2012-2013 academic year. As we begin another semester at Reed, I would like to encourage everyone to pause and reflect on what it means to apply the Honor Principle in daily life as a member of a vibrant academic community. One way of understanding the role of the Honor Principle at Reed today is to examine its past. To this end, I offer for your consideration an essay by Meredith Heiss ‘12, former Honor Council Education Subcommittee Chair and the person who has done the most in my time at Reed to animate and enliven discussions of the Honor Principle.
Brian Moore, Student Body President
Honor has been an essential element of Reed from the foundation of our school. William Trufant Foster, the first President of Reed, saw honorable behavior as a necessary part of the college, and before the end of the first semester the Honor Spirit was adopted. Foster conceived Honor as being comprised of self-reflection, self-control, and self-governance. As an agreement to think and act responsibly, honor allowed for freedom. Before the first finals period, “students voted to relieve the faculty the burden of enforcing honesty in tests, and agreed to make it a ‘point of honor’ not to cheat in examinations.” Honor came to be a principle of action in all schoolwork. According to the Reed College Annual, vol. I from 1915, “In school work the Honor Spirit require[d] earnestness, frankness and consideration for the rights of others in the use of library, laboratories and the like.” The Honor Spirit also applied to life outside of academics. “In general conduct it includes especially respect for property rights of persons both in and outside of the college, economy and care in the use of the college property, the prompt payment of debts and a regard for the reputation of the college abroad.” The Honor Spirit allowed students and faculty to work together, in addition to fostering freedom of expression and inquiry. The Honor Spirit made the Reed community different from other institutions. However, even in 1915, a time we often look back to as an ideal era of Honor, there were some complaints. The final paragraphs of the article entitled “The Honor Spirit” from the 1915 Reed College Annual addresses the problems: “The honor spirit has, of course, not yet attained perfection as a force in social control. There are some dissatisfactions, some misunderstanding, some difficulties of organized student life that honor has not obviated.” It was hoped that time and tradition would help the Honor Spirit function.
From this Honor Spirit came the creation of the Honor Principle. One of the newly established student government’s first responsibilities was to develop an Honor Principle that applied to all aspects of Reed life. In 1919, the constitution of the student body declared that conduct should be governed by the application of the Honor Principle, based on the idea that students would be guided by their own knowledge of right and wrong. The Honor Principle has never been defined, but over the years clarifying statements have been written. In 1963, the community senate approved a statement that read: “two kinds of behaviors…are in violation of the Honor Principle: (1) conduct which causes embarrassment, discomfort or injury to other individuals or to the community as a whole. (2) Conduct in violation of specific rules that have been developed over the years to meet special conditions in the community.” In 1968 the word “unnecessary” was added before “embarrassment.” In 1973, the faculty adopted an even more explicit statement expressing the importance of responsibility, honesty, trust, unquestioned integrity, respectful concern of each person for the other, judgment, and reflection. The statement also addressed the necessity for tacit agreement by all community members to support the Honor Principle even though the college does not call upon its members to sign a pledge of honor. And in 2000 the senate and faculty approved a resolution statement about the interaction of the Honor Principle and policies, suggesting that a policy violation is an ‘honor violation’ if and only if the violation of a rule or policy results in unnecessary embarrassment, discomfort or injury to other individuals or the community as a whole.”
Honor at Reed continues to evolve as we reassess the Honor Principle and methods for increasing honorable behavior at Reed. We still understand the Honor Principle as binding all members of the college community, though the question of how to get the whole community to care and be motivated to uphold the Honor Principle is a struggle. We still recognize that the Honor Principle requires honesty, respect and a willingness to take responsibility for the effect of our behaviors on ourselves, others and the college as a whole. Individuals have a vast range of perspectives on how to be honest and respectful, but can lose sight of the responsibilities that come with the freedom of the Honor Principle. We actively discuss Honor and scrutinizing potentially dishonorable behavior. We work towards fulfilling the hope of the first generations of Reedies, who, in 1915 wrote:
“That [Honor’s] applications be comprehensive of much, and that its meanings be written more deeply on the minds and hearts of all who may become connected with Reed is the hope of all who know what [honor] has already done.”