News of the College Novemberwinter2007

Is Honor Dead?

  honor discussion image

Students debated the current state of honor at a recent Reed Union: (left to right) William McNitt '08, Natalie Vizcarra '08, and Honor Council member Dustin Drenguis '08.


Just after Thanksgiving, more than 100 students and faculty members gathered in Vollum lounge to attend a Reed Union (a gathering of the community) to discuss the honor principle. Fall semester 2006 brought changes to campus, including the largest entering class ever, a plethora of national media attention, and a few blatantly dishonorable violations. All of which has led some to openly question whether the honor principle is still alive, and still relevant.

Student honor council member and anthropology major Christine Lewis ’07 is not one of those people. “We need more dialogue, to move away from this idealistic thinking, the idea that we could have a utopia, but we can’t, because the honor principle is dead.”

Lewis’ feelings were echoed by others, who generally agreed that the honor principle requires constant reevaluation in order to thrive. In spite of the widespread sentiment that a well-attended Reed Union was itself proof that the honor principle is alive and well, there was still concern over several recent acts of vandalism.

For instance, a truck driver delivering a refrigerator to the Paradox Café returned to his vehicle to find the tires slashed. Slips of paper with personal prayers written on them were removed from an envelope posted by the campus religious group, Oh For Christ’s Sake, and later found in a library urinal. And, in an apparent attempt to sabotage Steele dormitory during “dorm wars” (in which residence halls compete to see which can use the least energy), someone turned all the showers on hot and left them running. So far, no one—from the Reed community or elsewhere—has come forward to take responsibility.

It was that lack of responsibility, more even than the violations themselves, that disturbed many at the gathering. Student body president Lauren Rother ’07 said she doesn’t think there’s been more vandalism than in past years. But she was deeply troubled by the fact that the tire slashing happened in broad daylight, in the middle of the quad. “Everyone around there chose to do nothing,” she said.

Several students argued that the failure to act was the result of shyness, not an unwillingness to defend the community or enforce the honor principle. Some were also concerned that encouraging “enforcement” of the honor principle is akin to telling someone they don’t have a right to be at Reed. Others countered that because the honor principle is a social contract, a community member offering feedback about another’s behavior is actually a sign of respect.

In an interview following the Reed Union, classics professor and faculty Honor Council member Ellen Millender agreed that one of the most difficult aspects of the honor principle is getting people to report a violation.

“Students think we’re asking them to be narcs,” she said. “But I think that if students are truly committed to being part of the community, they have to take responsibility. By saying nothing, you’re basically saying it’s okay.”

Student body president Rother suggested that a way of addressing people’s behavior might be to use a more jocular tone. “There’s a way to call people out on the honor principle without being mean, by using humor to do it,” she said.

The way that Reed builds community—or fails to—was itself a fiery issue that set off a flurry of comments. Freshmen expressed their feelings of isolation from the other classes, while upper-classmen acknowledged that jokes about the freshmen might have become harmful. Tina Sohaili ’07, another student member of the Honor Council, echoed this sentiment in an interview.

“The freshmen have been telling me that they feel some of the jokes are starting to get to them, that they’re being reminded over and over about how big their class is, and that people are saying some of them should leave,” Sohaili said. “I think that just making an effort to watch the kind of jokes we make, explain Reed traditions to them and invite them to take part in more student groups, is a good way of addressing the issue.”

But Honor Council member Dustin Drenguis ’09, a political science major, later voiced his opinion that criticism of first-years wasn’t anything new. “Last year, there was the criticism that the freshmen weren’t quirky enough,” he said. Lewis agreed, but cautioned that resentment might have increased because of Reed’s recent media attention. “I think that makes people more self-aware because they’re looking at Reed through the eyes of others,” she said.

While much of the discussion focused on high-profile public violations, many also wondered about everyday issues—how to tell a dormie that his music is too loud or ask a roommate to wash her dirty dishes on a regular basis.

For some, playing music loud late at night on a weekday is a violation of the honor principle; others argued that it is the studying neighbor’s responsibility to speak up.

Resonating throughout was the idea that the honor principle is special precisely because it is undefined, and that Reed is unique because there is a social contract between all members of the community, instead of a set of rules governing everyone’s conduct. So, constant discussion of the honor principle, however exhausting, is necessary.

When asked for her definition of the honor principle, Millender opined that it’s a community agreement of mutual, honorable conduct. She cautioned: “A lot of people focus attention on the issue of academic dishonesty, but that’s only a small part of it. The honor principle applies to everybody on campus—faculty, staff, and students. It pertains to everything that goes on here—inside the classroom, outside the classroom, in the dorms, in Portland at large—even on the internet.”

—Josey Duncan ’06

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