Chalk circles and honor

Thanks to Google image search, I now know there's a band that goes by this name. From Wikipedia.

Thanks to Google image search, I now know about this band. From Wikipedia.

Karl G. Maeser was a pretty cool German. He was a Latter-day Saint convert, a key figure in establishing what became Brigham Young University. He believed in the importance of education and refused to disconnect it from moral formation. I think he was right about that. There’s an old story about Maeser that used to inspire me:

I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!

The underlying principle here is laudable. Our word of honor should mean something. We shouldn’t give it flippantly. We should do the utmost to keep it. Trust is a key ingredient in human relationships.

So far so good. But the story can also be seen as absurd—even potentially insidious—if taken the wrong way. 

Taken to extremes it becomes an apologetic for any particular unreasonable status quo. Why that circle? Is there a better place we could have situated ourselves? Does our obligation to the circle outweigh the needs of the kitten trapped in the burning house up the walk? (I’ve written about this before.)

The account risks reducing morality to a contractual and mechanical exchange. We might consider, instead, our peculiar Mormon interpretation of the Garden of Eden story. Eve and Adam are placed in the Garden and apparently agree with God’s instruction: Feel free to eat fruit from the trees, but not that one. The Book of Mormon surprisingly praises the breach, suggesting that competing goods can complicate what it really means to be honorable. Most of us will face circumstances where we have to choose between competing goods. (This is the old Anne-Frank-in-your-attic question. How honest are you when the Nazis come to call?)

I said the chalk circle story can be “absurd” because drawing a chalk circle and standing in it is one of the most morally insignificant things a person could do. I say “insidious” because it can lead us to believe morality is whatever we already understand as moral. It leaves no room for judgment calls, for moral development, for the fact that there are such things as “weightier matters” (Matt. 23.23). It can result in the proverbial straining out of gnats while swallowing camels (v. 24).

Maybe I’m being unfair. I can imagine other ways the chalk story could come in handy.

“Hey, can you change the boy’s diaper?”

“Sorry. I drew this chalk circle and gave my word, on my very honour, not to step beyond its bounds.”

“Why the hell did you draw all over the new carpet with chalk? Change the boy and clean up that mess.”


“Are you eating chalk?”

“Umm no.” *cough* [burst of powder from nose and mouth]



  1. A Happy Hubby says:
  2. I’m not *not* eating chalk . . .

  3. That’s a good answer, Melyngoch

  4. THANK YOU, I experienced profound fits of rage every single time I saw that poster my last year at BYU. I also experienced profound fits of rage every time I saw the “Cougars don’t cut corners” signs my first year at BYU, so maybe I need more therapy.

  5. The best “Cougars don’t cut corners” signs…had the corners cut off of them. Right by the MARB and Widtsoe.

  6. What kills me was that the whole point of that story is that personal integrity is a better motivator than enforcement, but it was constantly used when I was at BYU in support of a regime of enforcement with no trust of students’ personal integrity.

    Go ahead and give your word of honor if you want to, but it’s basically irrelevant because we’re still going to build these walls, and set guards on top of them, and equip then with surveillance cameras, and set penalties for even touching the wall, and encourage your fellow prisoners to rat you out if you even look at the wall.

    Call our a code of conduct if you want, but the honor code had very little to do with honor. It seems designed to teach us that our honor can’t be trusted.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    JKC, there are a lot of reasons to criticize BYU’s HC if need be, but the fact that it’s not a “self-reporting only” code of conduct is not one of the them.

    The HC was originally an academic code started by an Honor Society – and that’s “honor” as in “high achievement”. The word was never intended to be used in the sense of an “honor system”.

  8. I have to say I’ve never understood how someone with that degree of integrity “might” escape from prison. Wouldn’t the rule of law be something worth demonstrating your integrity over, even if unjustly accused or unjustly convicted? The whole thing falls apart if you think about it a bit.

  9. Until the events of the past week came to light, my biggest beef with the Honor Code was the way it enshrined stupid rules. Maybe no beards made sense in the 70s when we were trying to differentiate ourselves from the hippies (even then debatable), but it makes no sense now. But because it is enshrined in the Honor Code, it’s all about being obedient and following the rules with a glad heart, no matter how stupid they are. There’s no one who can speak up and remove a stupid rule, because by doing so you are expressing your disloyalty to the entire system and disavowing the importance of learned obedience. And because it’s an “honor” code, an infraction of a stupid rule suddenly carries eternal significance. So you attract Dolores Umbridges to become the enforcers, for whom obedience and exactness are the most important values. It is the opposite of “teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

  10. Mary Bradford says:

    You’re the greatest Blair! (What has happened to the Tom Rogers book?

  11. An observation–not intended as a criticism although it might come across that way–is that this makes no sense to me. I have the feeling that this is not Mormon, not U.S. or even Utah Mormon, but quite narrowly about BYU and probably even BYU as a student. I understand that’s a large contingent, and in some minds defining of modern Mormonism. Carry on.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    It seems like the chalk circle bit is in tension with repentance. Sometimes I’m going to commit things or to things that were a mistake. Seems counterproductive to ignore that, and carry on as if they weren’t.

  13. Mary: Tom’s book is still on track to be published in June.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    After watching “Inside Out”, the chalk circle allegory takes on a new meaning.

    Nothing but sadness inside that circle.

  15. Dog Pface says:

    This was my thought. What if someone else who had made the circle commitment stepped outside the circle and fooled around, but ended up getting abused. Would you step out of the circle to help her? I didn’t think so…See the parable of the good Samaritan.

  16. A Happy Hubby says:

    @Dog, When you say, “Help her” do you mean like reporting the fact that she stepped a few toes out of the chalk line to make sure everyone is deathly afraid of the chalk?

  17. Maeser had a point. But even decades ago, it created no end of amusement when a chalk circle appeared one morning on the grass beside, and not around, his statue on campus.

%d bloggers like this: