Reflections on Honor

I wrote and delivered a few remarks about honor in the spring of 2016, speaking at the Kennedy National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.

Before we go on to certificates and pledges, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a couple of thoughts about honor.

”Honor” seems like an antiquated, alien idea in our society. I was trying to think of when I hear it used, aside from something like, “it’s an honor to speak to you tonight” (which it is). While being in NHS is indeed an honor, that’s not why it’s in the name. I decided that I hear it most in shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, usually as an excuse to commit violence, and often in the same sentence with the word “vengeance.”

By the way, if any students thought that’s what they were signing up for here, nobody will mind if you get up and leave. Best to clear up this confusion now.

No, the kind of honor we’re celebrating here tonight is very different, and you can get a sense of it from the questions on the application. Those questions were a guide to whether you’re willing to take up the kind of work that will reflect well on your school, your classmates, teachers, parents, and community. We ask you about scholarship, about service, about leadership, and about character.

There are some very important things that we did not ask about on that application. We did not ask you to tell us about a time you provided a snarky comeback. We did not ask how many celebrities have retweeted you. We did not ask you to provide a list of high scores on favorite apps, nor for the shows you have completed binge-watching on Netflix, nor for evidence of your fantasy football acumen.

None of this is to suggest that this generation of students has only self-indulgent or frivolous interests. The students who will be inducted tonight have worked and volunteered for many good causes. And there’s nothing at all wrong with indulging in these, and other pleasures, as long as we recognize that selfie-gazing, in all its forms, is exciting in the moment but completely disposable. Nobody will even remember the app you conquered, if you even remember it yourself. No one will ask about your fantasy football championship. And if you think anyone will care about your retweets in ten years, I have a pretty awesome MySpace page I’d like to tell you about.

But people will remember the senior class project you will embark on together. The seniors of last year will, one day, drive past a house and tell their own kids that they helped a family by building it. This year’s seniors will visit a public playground and be able to say they helped develop it. You will remember some of the faces of those you helped while volunteering, and some of their stories, and best of all the feeling that you get when you give of yourself to help others.

Living an honorable life means looking outside ourselves quite a bit. It means assuming that others have something of value to teach us, rather than that we already know enough. It means interrogating our own character and how we might improve it, and leaving aside the question of how our friends and colleagues might improve theirs. Instead of sitting back and observing the flaws in our institutions, it means having the courage to open ourselves up to criticism by doing the hard work of leadership. Living an honorable life means asking not what others might do for us, to paraphrase our school’s namesake, but asking what service we might do for others. National Honor Society offers a way of reinforcing these virtues. And if you look at public discourse right now, they could use some reinforcement.

Simply put, this is hard, it’s not immediately rewarding, and we all fail at trying to live it from time to time. So congratulate these inductees tonight. Not for what they have done up to this point, but for what they are telling us they will do now. They live on the front lines of this disposable Snapchat culture that tells them to win at all costs, and cheat when it’s hard, yet they are about to come up on a stage and pledge that they will try to live and lead honorably. We should applaud them for it. In just a few minutes, I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

Thank you.