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The meaning of honor

2016-08-21         SHUKLAB

I started Parikrma Humanity Foundation with 165 abandoned, orphaned, slum children in Bangalore. Most of the children between 5 to 10 with a few 13 year-olds were accommodated because they were at risk. We made sure that we had an equal number of girls and refused admission to little boys if their sisters were not being sent to school. We believed that if the core idea of Parikrma was to provide equality it had to include social, academic, religious and even gender. Those days, our focus was on how to provide nutritious meals to children, ensure attendance everyday and keep them engaged in learning. Since most of them were first generation learners coming either from an orphanage or from dysfunctional homes, it was important for the teachers to bond with children quickly and inspire them to come to school everyday. In the first few days, our wallets disappeared and the food was always never enough, but slowly all that settled down when children began to feel secure and loved. Over a period of time with the introduction of alphabets and numbers we also introduced values of honesty and compassion. Now, with 12 years of experience under our belt we can say that we are evolving as educators. All the stakeholders of Parikrma know that while we strive for academic achievements, moral and ethical excellence is actually given more importance. It has not been easy to depart from the stereotype definition of institutional success of high grades and instead concentrate on developing capabilities in critical thinking, empathetic evaluation and creativity. We have been developing our own methods of discipline through a sense of responsibility and self motivation, rather than by creating a fear of authority, consequences and even loss. It has been a bumpy road but the destination is in sight. As I review every quarter of each of our schools, (and at this point I need to mention that we now have 4 schools, one college and a teacher-training academy. We have 1700 children in school and 204 students in universities that are being sponsored by us.), I am often struck with the total erosion of the word “honor’ from modern vocabulary usage. In the corporate world there is enough of integrity, transparency and accountability thrown around. In the academic world too there is a lot of talk about honesty and integrity but very little of honor these days. This has got me really thinking. In classical literature of Dickens, Austen, Twain and Hardy there were examples of not just honest but honorable men. In our religious texts too there were continuous mention of living with honor. In the New Testament Peter tells us to “honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king”(1 Peter 2:17} In the Ramayana, the entire story unfolds because of Rama’s willingness to uphold Dasaratha’s sense of honor. Mahabharata too is spluttered with cause and effect of duty laced with honor. Dr Samuel Johnson describes honor as “nobility of soul, magnanimity and a scorn of meanness” which was a combination of personal integrity and perceived virtuous conduct. In the last couple of decades with Wall Street, overnight start-up millionaires, that celebrates enterprise, the words “duty” and “honor” seems to be slowly erased from our dictionary. In fact, you can imagine my alarm, when I asked a few 14 year-olds what they thought of honor and was blandly told that being honest was more than enough. Last week, I interacted with a group of Parikrma Alumni students, who are pursing law, commerce, engineering, hotel management and nursing. We were discussing the kind of jobs they should aspire to acquire. Most understandably they wanted jobs that were interesting, with growth prospects and of course, had a good pay package. While I was delighted that money was not given the highest priority, I was also disappointed because nowhere was the word respect mentioned. I tell my students that they should choose careers that will earn them respect in society. While it does sound mundane at one point, in the context that our students live in, with 98% having alcoholic fathers and 92% having someone in their family in prison, getting a respectable job is very critical. They need to understand that some of the richest men in the world are not always respected and they need to make that distinction. This is where the concept of honor comes in. I think we need to introduce the value of honor in our schools again. Our students need to understand that it is important to be respectable, respected, having integrity, honesty and a sense of duty which add up to having honor. If each one of us did our jobs honorably then teachers would be regular, self disciplined and focused on the outcome. If politicians were more honorable then they would be constantly conscious of their duties to the people and stay away from self-gratification. If all medical professionals truly followed the Hippocrates oath honorably then there would not be needless surgeries and medication to meet targets. And Wall Street would be a different place. As I was writing this piece I suddenly remembered the time when we had started a Movie Club in our schools where 12 and 13 year-olds watched movies followed by discussions every Saturday. Having been a student of Literature myself, I thrived at the opportunity of introducing the basics of theepic Iliad by Homer to these students before showing them the Hollywood movie Troy. When prodded on the lessons learnt, I will always remember little Selvakumar (he is now a senior nurse at Manipal Hospital) saying, “I have learnt that the bad guys like Paris run away with the most beautiful girls and the good guys like Achilles die.” How do you explain to a 12 year-old totally enamored by Helen’s beauty and Brad Pitt’s six-pack, the true benefit of honor? All I could say was, “Whom do you respect and admire more even to this day, Paris or Achilles?” The truth then sinks in.

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