What do you do when no one is watching?

Posted by James Rainey - 19 August, 2016

2X0A7668 All 9th graders and new Upper School students sign the Honor Pledge.

I delivered the following remarks at the Upper School Honor Re-Orientation assembly on August 15, 2016:

In a letter sent from Paris to his nephew Peter Carr in Virginia on August 19, 1785, almost exactly 231 years ago, Thomas Jefferson offered the following advice:

“When your mind shall be well improved with science” – by which Jefferson would have meant “knowledge” or “education” generally – “nothing [else] will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues [of integrity and honor] can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”

I attended last night’s preseason football team dinner, and I was so proud of our seniors’ testimonies about the significance of several virtues in their lives and their teammates’ lives. In particular, I noted Forrest Webber’s definition of the virtue of character as “what you do when no one is watching,” a powerful echo of Jefferson’s own definition.

Peter Carr was 15 years old when he received this letter from his uncle, just as you are 15 years old now – or 14, or 16, or 17, or 18 – but I am confident that it is more challenging for you to follow Jefferson’s advice today than it was for Peter Carr in 1785. For starters, the worship of material gain is far more systemic in American society than it was in his time. How much more difficult it is for you, given all the signals you receive that wealth and happiness are the same thing, to heed Jefferson's imperative to “give up money… rather than do an immoral act.” Similarly, the cult of celebrity that informs our media-saturated lives today simply did not exist in Jefferson’s time. There were no professional athletes, no movie or TV or YouTube stars, no singers or bands attracting vast audiences and fan bases. How much more difficult it is for you, then, to heed Jefferson's imperative to “give up fame… rather than do an immoral act.”

But most challenging of all, I think, is Jefferson’s admonition to “act were all the world looking at you.” I talked about anonymity on Friday with our new Upper School students. Anonymity is the enemy of Jefferson’s concept of “integrity.” You know the word “integer” from your math classes. It’s a word that literally means “untouched,” and therefore undivided. To have integrity is to be undivided, to be in the essence of your character the same person with your friends as with your families, your teachers, your coaches, your neighbors, even with strangers – and, crucially, with yourself. “Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”

Like celebrity, anonymity has become ubiquitous. Brad Paisley satirized it in his 2007 song “Online,” in which a man who “works down at the Pizza Pit” and still lives with his mom and dad becomes the owner of a Maserati and “a black belt in karate” on MySpace. The false promise of anonymity is that you can shed your name and be someone else. I’m not talking about confidentiality; we are all entitled to privacy and dignity. I’m talking about the illusion of behaving virtually or remotely in ways that you would never behave face-to-face and believing that there is no cost to your integrity. By the very definition of the word, to divide your actions into those that you take in-person versus those that you take behind a screen, or alone, is to fracture your integrity. And it may be that no one knows but you. But you are casualty enough.

Randolph School exists to pour the foundation of the life that you are building. Our curricular and extracurricular programs exist to establish what Jefferson called “the acquirements of body and mind.” But as he noted, “a defect of [integrity and honor] can never be made up by the acquirements of body and mind.” So our Honor System and Honor Council exist to pour and cement the foundation of your character. It exists not to threaten you, but to encourage and empower you to take actions consistent with your developing sense of integrity, even – or perhaps especially – when no one is looking. It is a privilege to attend a school that privileges character and reinforces Thomas Jefferson’s essential imperative, which I will repeat in closing my remarks to you this morning:

“Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly."

Topics: character, community, School Culture, football, professional growth, tradition


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