Remembering Who We Are – Our Honor Culture and the Graduate Profile

After visiting Atlanta a few days ago, I avoided driving back into Dante’s Tenth Circle of Hell (aka I-285) and came home through the North Georgia mountains. The drive was pleasant and the air fresh as I found myself in Lumpkin County where my grandfather grew up. That part of Georgia remains a family outpost so I stopped to pay respects to my great-grandfather. His given name is William Thomas and he was born in 1854.

As I looked at his gravestone, I thought how many times the names “William” and “Thomas” have been used by my family. Even my son carries “Thomas” as did my uncle on my father’s side and my grandfather on my mother’s side. Since my mother did not care for my uncle’s black sheep ways but wanted me named after her father who was a saintly man, she named me Tommy. She then took my middle name from her favorite cousin, Max. I guess if our parents named us logically, we might all have a serial number instead of a little piece of family history that links us to the past for the rest of our lives.

Naming our children after our ancestors has been a common cultural habit in the South for generations. We can all think of examples or have indulged in the habit ourselves – sometimes extravagantly so. I have met quite a few Southern men who carry a junior at the end of their name. Some carry thirds and a few fourths though it seems carrying a fifth is more about bourbon than birthing. Other than Henry and Jack Daniels, I don’t know anyone with a fifth trailing their name.

Until I began researching South Carolina’s honor culture, I didn’t realize that our naming habits are mostly unique to the South. Apparently people outside of the South just give their children new names devoid of any past family connection. Maybe they don’t realize that to name your child after an ancestor is to show honor to the past and hope for the future. Or maybe they realize that hope comes with a new name. As I recall, John the Revelator alludes to the gift of a new name for those heaven-bound. My purpose here is not to criticize naming habits, but to comment on an anomaly of permanence in our constantly shifting modern American culture.

These links between honor and naming habits are presented in a 2014 study entitled Naming Patterns Reveal Cultural Values: Patronyms, Matronyms, and the U.S. Culture of Honor by Ryan P. Brown, etal. (Note that the authors included the multi-generational use of given names in their definition of patronym. Historically, patronyms are the use of a given name to form the surname for the next generation – i. e. Johnson is the son of John).

The study revealed several significant findings. Men who had formed a personal code of honor tended to name their sons after themselves or other male relatives of past generations. These fathers tended to live in “honor states” where personal reputation still forms a significant part of an individual’s identity. When faced with a substantial collective threat or attack such as 9/11, the use of patronyms rose collectively in honor states. Simply put, all those post 9/11 babies born in the South received a lot of family given names.

The study defined honor as being more than just having virtue. “ For men in such cultures having honor means being (and being known as) strong, brave, and willing to defend one’s person, one’s family and one’s property from any threat.” Proof was offered that even today Southern males respond more strongly to insults than Northern males across “physiological, psychological and behavioral levels.”

Specific honor states were not named other than placing them in the Southern and Western regions of the country but the study did define a common characteristic found in honor states. They are made up of communities having “strong kinship bonds, with extended family systems often forming local clans that, among other functions, serve to reinforce an individual’s reputation as someone with whom interlopers ought not to trifle.”

If we know our family history or had a decent American history teacher, we learned that these communities were formed and interlinked as families expanded from Virginia through the rest of the South into Texas – a distinct nation building process that began before the United States was formed and that was 250 years old by the time of the War Between the States. My own family followed a similar trail from Virginia in the late 1600’s through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee leaving family outposts along the way and always staying near or in the mountains. Most of these family outposts exist to this day containing cousins to the nth generation. This is not uncommon as many of my neighbors in Northern Greenville County can lay claim to the same heritage. Mind you, I’m not talking about imaginary magnolias and columned houses. These were and continue to be hard working people who want to keep their independence, expand and protect their families, educate their children and worship as they see fit.

150 years after that war ended, the South still retains the foundational notion of personal honor – a present-day fact proved by numerous studies devoted to honor cultures within the United States. Before we go further, we should understand that the underlying premise of most studies assumes honor to not be a meritorious code for oneself, family and community but a justification for patriarchal violence, gender oppression and child poverty. Somehow, these researchers have isolated personal honor from a host of other positive character traits, religious influences and manners. They have concluded that the influence of honor is the cause for all that ails us. The significance of the naming study is that it shows how the notion of honor influences a non-violent act such as the naming of children. If I had time to answer the critics, I would propose that the notion of honor, especially when combined with the traits that they did not study, prevents violence rather than encourages it. But that is a subject for another day.

So what does honor have to do with the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate and the education of our children? South Carolina has 300 years of cultural development that’s ingrained with this notion of personal honor. Our General Assembly has instructed our public schools to teach our children about integrity, an ideal which rests at the core of being honorable.

During a review of the new Graduate Profile last session, I asked an educator how schools would teach the importance of integrity especially since we have removed even the acknowledgement of any moral or religious authority that used to be inherent in education. He replied that schools would have a hard time teaching integrity if it was not taught at home.

I disagree. In the past, schools had honor codes that were simple yet taught students the importance of taking personal responsibility, valuing your own effort and trusting your classmates to do the same. These days, honor codes have been abandoned in favor of developing self-expression, collaboration and interpersonal skills. Hey, who needs an honor code when cheating is just a form of collaboration? That answer will come in our next installment in the honor series, where we will take a look at the disappearance of honor codes on the college level and the efforts that high schools have to expend to maintain order.

Who knows? It might be that students will discover who they are through guided self-restraint rather than unguided self-expression.

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