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5 Characters in Search of Character
from the ACHS 1999 Annual Meeting in San Diego, California

"Character" and Honor Society Membership

William C. Johnson, Executive Director, Sigma Tau Delta

All of us, I am sure, would agree that "good character" is important, both in our professional and personal lives, and in private as well as public sectors. And it seems appropriate to associate "good character" with anything connected to honors. A part of me believes, or wants to believe, that "good character" should be a criterion for honor society membership. Another part of me, however, insists that one must sometimes choose the unpopular evidence of hard truth--and face the consequences.

And so I must argue that the criteria for honor society membership should focus on academic achievement and academic ability, and not include character. To include character as a membership criterion invites a fundamentalist objectivism that not only devalues individual freedoms but runs the risk of limiting membership because of parochial or personal agendas that may be politically or morally far from what we intend in our own interpretation of the term "character."

The inclusion of "good character" as a criterion poses considerable problems. First of all, a very practical, serious consideration, hovering like that sword of Damocles, is the possibility of legal action such an inclusion might pose. In our litigious culture, any suggestion, any hint, of discrimination--for whatever reasons--sends up warning signals. There must be very responsibly examined, very clearly articulated, criteria for not accepting anyone into one of our societies, just as we have carefully considered, responsibly examined, and clearly articulated the criteria for inclusion. To me the reasons for not accepting, at least reasons based on "character," are neither clearly definable nor universally defensible.

A second issue that comes to mind about "character" in this context is that, while I certainly admire good character and value its evidence in friends, students, and colleagues, I simply can’t define it. And without clear definitions to guide us we’re in great danger of being moved by individual choice, private motivation, or forces that can move us even if we’re not entirely sure of what they are.

The word itself comes from a Greek word meaning "a distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise formed." Reading farther into the Oxford English Dictionary we get closer to the word in the context we’re considering it today: "the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual. . . ." Yet both of these definitions are problematic. "A distinctive mark impressed" suggests a stability, almost permanence, of engraved marks--and leads one to think that "character" might be permanent. But is it? If someone led a rather "questionable" life in high school, or before going to the university, but then turned his life around and, with a sound academic first few years of college, applied for membership in one of our societies, do we ignore the earlier days and only look at more recent accomplishments? Or do we exclude an academically solid student, now of "good character," but with a record of earlier indiscretions?

Conversely, if character is not permanent, if it is mutable, who is to say that someone of good character now might be of bad character later? Who is to say that, e.g., a brilliant math student like young Theodore Kasinski, might not later become The Unabomber? In short, if we were to accept "character" as a criterion, at what point in one’s life do we think we can freeze it? When do we arrive at the "sum" of qualities that defines it? And if character changes, do we undo what we first did when admitting someone to membership?

Yet there are other problems. During our own lifetime (well, at least for most of us), this issue concerning "good character" arose with the political, moral, religious, personal crises evident in the so-called Vietnam Conflict. As a student during the 1960s--and an academically sound one--I recall the inner turmoil in myself and in others concerning the "character" issue of those who went to fight the war and the "character" of those who chose not to do so. I well recall knowing that it wasn’t necessarily strong character that led to accepting the draft call, just as it wasn’t necessarily "weak" character that led some to flee to Canada or Europe. There were personal as well as social pressures to go fight; there were personal as well as social pressures to refuse. What would be our position now in accepting a so-called "draft-dodger"--and therefore someone breaking the law--into our company? What would have been our position 30 years ago? And what might be our position concerning someone who found the war morally reprehensible, morally unacceptable, but also felt too weak-willed, too "characterless," to say "no?" Where is "character" in such examples?

Still, you might protest with "Look, I know good character when I see it." Well, so do I--to a point. We have a good, fairly recent, example in young David Cash, an engineering student in California with a good GPA. Because of his sound academic record and because of the lack of any evidence of bad behavior (i.e., he had never been arrested, never brought before a campus judicial body because of misconduct), wouldn’t he, given that this is the profile of most of our inductees, appear acceptable for honor society membership? Yes, probably so--until we read and heard about this student’s astounding lack of concern for his astounding lack of action when he actually witnessed, and did nothing about, his friend raping and then murdering a helpless 7-year old girl. Probably most of us remember this shocking incident, remember the moral outrage we felt towards this young man, and were astounded that his response was only "I’m not going to get upset over someone else’s life--I just worry about myself first. This wasn’t any of my business." Probably all of us would say "ah, there’s a perfect example of bad character, and we don’t want anyone like that in our societies." And I would agree. But how would we have known ahead of time?

Yet David Cash's story is an extreme example. In considering character as a criterion for membership in our honor societies, most of us would not be faced with anything anywhere near that extreme. But it’s precisely the ordinariness, the everydayness of ethical and moral decisions, that makes their alliance with character determination so difficult, and if we’re going to use ethical and moral subjectivism as part of our determination of "good character," how can we measure at what point in someone’s life that the suspended ethic, or the morally questionable action, is evidence of either good or bad character?

Take for example an even more recent situation that appeared in the newspaper just four weeks ago. Consider your own response to the report of the two Kentucky high school juniors who, when denied membership in the National Honor Society last year because of their pregnancies, filed suit against that society. Critics of the girls said that despite the girls’ high academic achievement their pregnancies made them unfit role models for whom membership should be denied. Supporters, on the other hand, commented that the girls showed strong character in admitting and taking responsibility for their mistake. Others questioned even the use of the word "mistake," asserting that the use of such a term posited values not necessarily held by the girls, their families, the community. Still others argued that these girls admitted their condition, committed themselves to giving birth to their babies, and were subsequently denied membership, while other young women chose to have abortions, and thus never had to admit their condition, and were subsequently allowed into membership. (And none of these responses, by the way, mentions the boys who fathered the babies--but that’s yet another take on all this.) How would you respond to the character issue here? Admit these girls? Deny them?

In addition to the inability to clearly define character, and even more than the instability of character, there are other reasons for rejecting it as a criterion for membership in honor societies. Time only permits mention of a very few.

One is that when we wrestle with and identify what characteristics are valuable to us, we run the risk of thinking that our cultural or social values are those which should be applied to other cultures, other societies, and other people. How many of us, e.g., would agree that it is necessary to preserve "freedom of religion?" If we value such a belief, to what degree do we do so? If one’s religion dictates that no medications and no doctors of any kind are to be employed when someone is sick, do others then have the right to deny parents their freedom of religion to say "no" to medication for their children or for themselves? Would everyone agree that such parents exhibit "good character?" Given that our own values are inextricably involved in our efforts both to define and to identify character--do we then say that it is our values that must take precedence over the values of others?

And what if, in identifying character and using it as a membership criterion, we eventually turn out to be wrong? I already used the Vietnam situation as an example of a major character issue during our lifetime--and one in which major social and legal reversals occurred concerning the "character" of those involved. Let me provide another case suggesting the dangers involved in too strictly defining character and basing our actions on our perceptions of "good" and "bad character." If you were asked to determine the character of the following individual, how might you respond?

Take the case of a well-known teacher who has dedicated his life to freeing students from tired ideologies, from staid, stock answer-giving, and from learning by rote; assume this very popular teacher’s reputation is such that many, many students find him a role model, an example of who and what they themselves would like to be. But assume that, at a certain point, the administration starts getting suspicious reports about the teacher’s interaction with many of his students. Eventually they not only call him in, and then subject him to a hearing, but then find him guilty of corrupting his students, leading them astray, disrupting and endangering the very social fabric. Do we want in our honor societies someone convicted of corrupting young boys? Ignoring the defense arguments, would we say "no, in our value system, this Socrates fellow needs to go-- and should be given hemlock?"

On the other side of this connection of character with action is the issue of individuals who value acting altruistically in such a way that their good works are done in secret and there is little record of their having done "good deeds testifying to good character." What do we make of those individuals, about whom we read every year, who anonymously place valuable coins in the Salvation Army Christmas kettles? Do they exhibit good character? In my book, yes; is it demonstrable? Not to anyone but the anonymous giver.

And we run the risk of defining the positive by what has not been done. That is to say, if a candidate has no jail record, has done nothing on record that is morally or ethically or legally reprehensible, has never spoken out in class or protested boisterously in any kind of "anti-" activity, is this evidence of "good character?" (Dante, by the way, would not say "yes"; he places such persons outside hell in what he calls a "misero modo"--an absolutely miserable state, where hell won’t take them because they’ve done nothing bad, but heaven won’t take them because they’ve done nothing good.)

Many other examples could be given to testify to our inability to provide definitions or to articulate appropriate means of interpreting "good character." We are, after all, dealing with very complex ethical, moral, even legal matters. How do we respond to them? and if we have difficulty with this topic, how can we then ask others--our chapter sponsors, our student officers--to respond in our stead to the complexities of these issues? To do so is to swim in very turbulent waters.

What then do we do about character as a criterion? First, we don’t try to define it for others if we can’t define it ourselves. Next, we recognize that "character"--whatever it is--is subject to change. And we acknowledge that it may not be evidenced in ways that we would chose for ourselves--and that its not being evidenced doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

What we can do as honor societies, and what we especially do as leaders in those honor societies, is (1) model as best we can, as often as we can, in every way we can, that behavior and those values we wish to have our members emulate. (2) We also can open the topic, as we are doing this weekend, to our members, to our chapters, to our boards of directors; keeping the conversation going--and keeping it open--is very important. (3) We can use good character as a quality looked for, and looked at, in the various honors and awards within our societies--outstanding service awards, leadership awards, and such, come to mind. And (4),we can provide service opportunities that nurture character development. In doing any of these--modeling, encouraging dialogue, honoring character within our societies--we can hope that our sponsors, our chapters, our members will give the subject not only the reflection it deserves, but will find ways to live mindfully, thoughtfully, in community--where good character binds us to one another.

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