Honor Principle

History and Essays

History of the Honor Principle
Remarks of Reed College President Colin Diver
Orientation August 29, 2003


The honor principle at Reed dates back to the first president of Reed, William Trufant Foster. As Foster conceived of it, the honor principle was an indispensable aspect of the college’s educational philosophy. As he saw it, freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry were indispensable to learning, both within the academic program and outside of the academic program. But he also believed that freedom was meaningless, at best, and destructive, at worst, if it was not accompanied by responsibility. That is where the principle of HONOR came in. In particular, the honor principle had three components: self-reflection, self-control, and self-governance.

By self-reflection, Foster meant that reflection should both precede and follow action. Before acting, one ought to consider and weigh the consequences of one’s acts. Not just the intended consequences, but the foreseeable consequences as well. Not just the consequences for one’s self, but the consequences for other people, and for the college as a community. Likewise, after taking an action, one should ponder what happened, why it happened, and what lessons it conveyed.

By self-control, Foster had in mind the concept of honor implicit in the phrase “gentleman’s honor”—that is, a sense of propriety, decorum, right action that welled up from within, rather than being imposed from outside. To Foster, rules were less desirable than self-motivation, because one did not learn from blind adherence to rule. Also, he felt that rules were not necessary because members of the Reed community should already know how to behave, and should already be motivated to conduct themselves accordingly.

By self-governance, Foster had in mind that everyone at Reed, students, faculty, and staff alike, would participate in major decisions about the community and its welfare. So that, to the extent it is necessary to restrict each other’s liberty or the range of each other’s choices, this will be done democratically. This did not necessarily mean voting, but it did mean consultation, discussion, and deliberation.

Several attributes of Reed College 90 years ago made it easier to govern the place by an honor principle. First, Reed was very small. Just a few hundred students and a few dozen faculty and staff members. Everyone knew each other and interacted with each other all the time. Second, Reed—like most colleges—really was an ivory tower, located on a remote farm on the outskirts of Portland, and relatively insulated from the civil society around it. It was a kind of self-contained, almost utopian community. Third, virtually everyone at Reed had come from a relatively narrow stratum of society—you might call it the aristocracy of early 20th-century America. So, it was reasonable to assume that Reedies would all share common understandings of what honorable behavior consisted of.

Over the past 90 years, these conditions have changed. First, Reed has grown to a community of some 1,700 students, faculty, and staff—still a small liberal arts college, but too large to govern itself as if it were an 18th-century New England town meeting. By necessity, even if not by choice, it must depend on a much more representative form of governance. Second, no matter how much you hear about the so-called “Reed bubble,” the college is no longer isolated. It is hemmed in on all sides by residential neighbors; it is heavily regulated by the city of Portland, the state of Oregon, and the federal government. We are required by civil law to protect the environment, minimize risks to your safety and the safety of others, refrain from discriminating on the basis of race or gender, combat use of illegal substances, protect your privacy (even from your parents, by the way), keep various kinds of records, cooperate with law enforcement, and the like. And third, Reedies now come from a much wider range of cultural and geographic backgrounds, life experiences, political and ideological viewpoints. We no longer have the same high degree of agreement on what is proper behavior, what is harmful, what is offensive.

So, we do have more rules that we did 90 years ago.  Here, they are called “policies.” We have policies on dogs, drugs and alcohol, sexual harassment, academic honesty, and so on. We take these policies seriously, while still adhering as closely as we can to Foster’s original conception of honor. Maintaining an honor principle today is difficult. That’s why most colleges have given up on it. But we think the effort to live by an honor principle is worth it. Because, as Foster believed, it is the best way to build a community and it is the best way to learn from each other and from our own experiences. That’s why Reed hasn’t given up on it. That’s why we ask you to do your best to help us preserve it.

Thank you.