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Integrity Week: Celebrating 25 years of the Duke Honor Code

Integrity Week (I-Week) is just around the corner, and on the 25th anniversary of Honor at Duke, what does living honorably mean for Duke students? 21st-century expectations of students seem simple: don’t cheat, don’t steal, live honorably. In my History of Ancient Philosophy class with Professor Michael Ferejohn, we learned that 2,500 years ago, the standards were a tad more complicated. During the time of Socrates, the Greeks’ conception of areté (αρετή), or what we now call “virtue,” was really a set of guidelines for how people should live. Though it is commonplace to use the English word “virtue” as a simple translation, areté can be more accurately thought of as excellence in general. In order to live excellently and be an excellent person, one had to possess each of the excellences: justice, piety, temperance, courage, and wisdom. No single excellence took precedence over the others, but in order to live well and be an expert in ethical matters, each of the five were integral.

Fast forward two-and-a-half millennia. Discussions surrounding honor and integrity rarely extend into the abstract question by which Socrates was fascinated: how do we live well? On top of that, what does “living well” even mean?

This year, with Honor Council’s new program of a different theme dominating each month, we are exposed to the intersectionality of honor with all fields, ranging from law and finance to athletics and sexual misconduct. But we can’t stop there. During the Young Trustee endorsement period, Amy Kramer responded to a question about the purpose of Honor Council with the simple statement that we are here “to define the abstract.” For Amy, me, and hopefully the entire student body, honor should be synonymous with living well. We want to leave this storied institution proud of who we’ve become and the legacy we’ve left behind. At our weekly Council meetings, we often talk about why it is so hard to get people to come to Honor Council events. Yes, Duke students are busy, but the more significant contributor to their absence is that everyone already believes they are honorable, so why waste time to have someone else tell them? The answer is this: without examining our lives, we are in danger of doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

Duke, unlike most universities, defines integrity using a “community standard” as opposed to an “honor code.” This distinction is important because the word “code” implies a rigid set or rules or regulations, while a “standard” refers to norms that suggest a certain level of quality. By calling our version of the honor code a “standard,” we are making a concerted effort to demonstrate that these are guidelines for how everyone should be treated and how everyone should act, much like the golden rule.

Though the Duke Community Standard does not ask Duke students to control their emotions, go to war for their country, or respect those who are higher than them in the grand scheme of things, the ancient Greeks’ belief in excellence is something we should apply to how we think about honor today. When we hear the words “Duke Community Standard,” or “honor,” our knee-jerk translation is “don’t cheat.” We know the first line of the Standard by heart at the expense of the two critical lines, which ask students to “conduct themselves honorably in all endeavors,” and to “act when the Standard is compromised.” 

Without thinking about honor as a way for us to live excellently, we can never break out of the restrictive, damaging belief that honor is just about not cheating on a test. It is not something that disappears the second we close a Blue Book. Honor is about how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with fellow students and professors, on our Orgo midterm, and in our K-ville experience.

In 1993, Duke’s first Honor Code was instituted. The inaugural set of guidelines has undergone many transformations before reaching its final form today. We as the Honor Council continue to try to expand our definition of honor, with upcoming I-Week events such as the Censored Women’s Film Festival, a discussion with mayor of Durham Steve Schewel, and a panel with past Honor Council chairs, moderated by former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, Sarah Raskin. As we plunge headfirst into Integrity Week (March 23-29), think about whether you are examining your life, and more importantly, whether you are proud of the actions you took to achieve what you have achieved. And if you’re really ambitious, see if you fulfill Socrates’ criteria.

This week’s column was written by Megan Zhao (T’21).


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