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O-Week author defines honor

By Hallie Jordan     8/31/11 7:00pm

The author of this year's Common Reading author spoke to an audience of about 100 people in the RMC Grand Hall on Tuesday about honor and respect explaining how they apply to specifically to Rice along with the rest of the world.

In his book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, author Kwame Anthony Appiah describes traditions from around the world that are either violent or cause pain and are done in the name of honor.

"Honor is the entitlement to respect, and in an honor system, there are a set of codes for who is entitled to respect and how respect is lost," Appiah said. "Shame is what you feel when you lose the entitlement to be respected."

Appiah applied his definition of honor specifically to Rice during his talk by explaining how students are affected by the Rice Honor Code.

"Here [at Rice] everyone is committed, and that holds us to standards that are higher than the baseline and policed by all of us," he said. "This comes from the fact that if you know your friends know you cheated, they will think less of you."

He went on to explain that at Rice, respect means everyone exists under the assumption that a student will not cheat because he or she believes in the Rice Honor Code.

Associate Dean of Undergraduates Matt Taylor said he felt Appiah's speech was particularly well suited for Rice.

"Professor Appiah really sculpted his talk to fit a message for Rice freshmen," Taylor said. "It was both entertaining and serious. At the end, he talked very seriously about the honor system and described honor and respect as being almost merged. It was really awesome."

The book was chosen for the Common Reading partly because it encourages readers to act and participate in both their own and other communities, Religious Studies Professor Elias Bongmba said.

"Professor Appiah highlights the role of education in shaping moral revolutions and gives students an opportunity to reflect on their obligations to the global community," Bongmba said. "We can no way act as if we are isolated from the rest of the world."

Taylor, who was part of the group who choose the book, said he thought it would make students get a chance to redefine their sense of self and think about what it means to be a part of a community with an honor code.

"The Honor Code jumped out initially because of the title," Taylor said, "Also, it is written by a highly regarded philosopher and is serious but accessible."

This year 48 faculty members were chosen to lead the Common Reading discussions, which occur during O-Week and were traditionally led by O-Week advisors.

"With this book we definitely needed faculty members, and we are excited that we had so many respond," Taylor said.

Though lauded by administrators, Jones College freshman Abby Wright said she thought that it was a bit hard for college students to connect with the book.

"I feel like these are issues that need to be talked about but that he could have explained them in a way that more retain to college students," Wright said in regards to Appiah's speech.

Appiah, who is a professor at Princeton University and holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, grew up in Ghana. He said he came up with the idea of the book when he started thinking about the relationship between the historical Chinese practice of foot binding and honor.

"I always begin with puzzles, and this was a real one for me, so I thought I should go back and understand honor," Appiah said.

"The puzzle in this instance was the question of how something that causes pain and is generally acknowledged to cause pain can also be considered a thing of honor," he said.

After researching various other practices, including English dueling, which was popular during the 1800s and known to be both deadly and illegal, Appiah came up with his own definition for honor.

Through his research Appiah came to a conclusion about how illegal and painful customs can been seen as honorable.

"Sometimes we get caught up in an honor system that gives us respect for something that we think we should not do," he said.

He cited American slavery as another example, suggesting that in order for abolitionist movements to have existed, people had to acknowledge that there was something bad about slavery, and in this way, the practice began to be seen as shameful.

These practices he describes can be changed through what Appiah calls "honor revolutions," which happen when people are persuaded to consider an outside perspective and understand how their actions could seem wrong.

The Common Reading was chosen by a committee consisting of four students and two faculty. They chose from between 20 and 30 books starting at the beginning of last year, Taylor said.

"Common reading is important because it serves as a way to welcome new students to Rice's intellectual community," Taylor said. "It is the first experience to discover ideas and issues within the context of being at Rice."

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