Honour and the Old School

I went to a grammar school that desperately – desperately – wanted to be a minor public school (Roundhay in Leeds, if you want to know). Opened in 1923, it was all boys, with twin emphases on academic and sporting performance. The masters, not teachers, wore their gowns and most of them were Oxbridge graduates. We were divided into houses (Scott, Nelson, Kelvin, Gordon) and wore our uniforms with differing amounts of pride. I received a wonderful education there, I was encouraged to learn for the simple sake of knowing, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

Many of those who taught us were older. They’d grown up with a different tradition, one where a man’s word was his bond. I recall being asked after a test if I’d cheated (I hadn’t), and to answer “on my honour.”

Honour. It’s an outmoded concept these days. Shakespeare wrote: ‘Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; Take honour from me and my life is done’ (of course, far more cynically, he also wrote: “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No.”). But to the generation that taught me, it was a very tangible thing. My parents wouldn’t have used the word, but they’d have said ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil.’ Be honest, know right from wrong.

There’s still that sense in me.

As a concept it probably become more codified in those long-gone days of chivalry. Knights – who were the aristocracy – had honour. They lived by it, at least in theory. The rest of us, the peasants, couldn’t absorb the idea, let alone be expected to practice it. And so it remained, there in the class divide. Those we were conditioned to think of as honourable men, our betters, could be trusted.

They’d have us continue to believe that, as if a public school education fitted a man – and it’s almost always men, isn’t it? – to rule. We shouldn’t question their ideas or motivations. But the notion of not believing crept in during the Great War, as well it might (indeed, it had long before, but it gained more widespread traction there). However much those in power try to make us believe they’re honourable men, we know the truth now. We can see behind the curtain.

Tell the truth and shame the devil? Doubtful. I’ve been trying to think of the last honest politician. There’s Mandela, of course, but he’s more icon that political. Jimmy Carter? A good man who seemed to wander into a presidency by mistake. And since 1980, in the West at least, they’ve been very hard to find.

Because of that, perhaps, maybe honour’s run its course, had its day. The phrase ‘greed is good’ resonated for a reason. Can it be a coincidence that those at the top seemed determined to create an economic underclass, and that the pace of that division has increased so much since the 1980s? Maybe we need to look in the bin, dig down a bit and find honour. Pull it out, blow off the dust and wear it again.


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