A Critique of Honor, by Tiffany Godley

The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Tiffany Godley, ’22 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in English, won Second Place for her essay, “A Critique of Honor” in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to live a life with honor(s)?”


“A Critique of Honor”

Honor. A word that springs from masculinity and valiance. A word used generously in animated Disney movies. Slaying a dragon, pulling a sword out of a rock, pretending to be a man to fight in a war. Brains, brawn, success, triumph. The more that I think about the connotations of this word, the more I come to realize how much power it has over us. And how, if we are truly to live a life with honor, we must let go of what this word has meant for generations and embrace a life of authenticity, rather than portrayal.

Before starting this essay I believed honor to be of worth: an ideological award for the personal manifestation of hard work, intelligence, humility, dedication, integrity, and a little bit of luck. But upon reading what the Internet had to say about honor, the first comparison Merriam-Webster delivered was reputation. Immediately, my eyebrows burrowed closer together as I looked closer to my screen. That can’t be right, I thought to myself. And then it dawned on me. All the honors engagements I have spent my life dedicated to were in pursuit of prestige rather than genuine understanding. Reputation, rather than learning and self-growth.

Growing up, I went to a college prep school where we were highly encouraged to take honors classes. These honors classes helped me to get into what I would argue is an honor worthy university, where I continued to take honors classes and soon earned a spot in the Schreyer Honors College. You would think, after all these years of prioritizing honors classes and honors distinction I would feel some sense of being a person of honor. But the thing about honor is that it is never something you can reach, only something you can strive for.

Honor eats you up with the belief that if you just get into that college, if you just get a high enough GPA, if you just get the job you want, if you just make enough money, you will live a happy, honor-full life. The reality is, this “destination addiction,” as various psychologists have noted, only leaves us tired, restless, and unhappy. And in my case, questioning whether or not honor is something to strive for in the first place.

Because, when I look back, I notice that behind all the honors classes I have taken, were students getting away with cheating. Behind all the accolades me and my fellow students fight for, are privileges and prejudices which put some groups ahead and some groups behind. Behind institutions deemed with honors, are scandals covered up. This society of honor we have constructed in pursuit of success, money, skill, and recognition is not valiant. It is selfish and dishonest.

It is in this context that I bring up my original definition of honor, before delving into a more critical view of what honor means in our world. I believed honor to be of worth: an ideological award for the personal manifestation of hard work, intelligence, humility, dedication, integrity, and a little bit of luck. This is what I would want honor to mean, and what I believe we as a culture can be. But first, we must disaffiliate with what we currently esteem honor to mean. We must let go of dishonesty, turbid intentions, selfishness, pride, and destination addiction. And we must pursue the opposite of our current circumstances, which are genuine engagement in learning, humility, hard work, kindness, honesty, respect, and integrity. It is in the pursuit of these that our stained system honor will find restoration.

Why is the Schreyer Honors College not named, the Schreyer College of Academic Excellence? Why does a little capitol H next to a course number distinguish one student from another? Isn’t the point that we stand out academically among our peers and not among ourselves? Let us speak truthfully. It is high time we challenge what honor means to us as an institution, and manifest who we want to be as a culture, community, and university. So that Penn State can rise up above what the world deems to be honor, and establish what should be the true and genuine standard of honor.