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On Courage

Dear Readers,

I asked Karen Guttentag, as guest blogger this month, to share some of her views about the honor code.  She has more than fulfilled this request by sharing a story about honor and bravery. Here is her personal account of a specific act of courage. Read on. It might cause you to take stock.

—Shirley M. Collado

I’d like to see our community talk at least as much about Honor as we do about Code. I’d like to spend more time exploring the values at the root of our policies—honesty, integrity, and responsibility. Practicing these values involves holding ourselves to high standards and also requiring the same of others: to remain silent in the face of poor behavior is to tacitly condone it, an act that dishonors the observer as much as the actor.

There is no question that living up to these standards takes courage, a special kind of bravery that some people feel is beyond their grasp. But is it really? I think the health and growth of our community depend on this kind of courage. There is nothing more transforming than witnessing an act of integrity, and even the most unlikely of us is capable of it.

I know this because I’ve seen it. I was a junior in college, and it was the night before graduation. There was a bonfire on the quad, and we were 500+ students, many of whom had been drinking, all of whom were feeling a little restless and reckless. As the night wore on, the flames began to die down, and a group began to cast about for new bonfire fodder. Across the quad, someone spied Knowledge vs. the Elements.

As a public art installation, Knowledge vs. the Elements was uninspiring. It was a simple wooden tripod, about four feet tall, from which hung an enormous tome. The idea was that the whole business would endure the harsh elements of the extreme Minnesota weather until it rotted and ultimately disappeared, presumably reflecting a profound truth about the ephemeral nature of ideas. At the time of the bonfire, it had lasted for about two years, was starting to look a little moldy, and was widely acknowledged as an object of ridicule among the student body.

So when a group of students, led by one I’ll call Dustin, began chanting, “Burn the Book of Knowledge!” they found some traction in the crowd. A small group dragged the installation across the green, and raucous cheers went up as they tossed it into the bonfire. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Although I’d like to think I wasn’t among the cheerers, I can’t be sure, and I do know I didn’t do or say anything that could remotely be construed as moral leadership. Much to my surprise, however, leadership came from a completely unlikely source.

No one would have pegged Vince as a champion of respect. A senior known for his prowess on the lacrosse field, he was a handsome party boy who had done more time than most answering to the dean for various behavioral issues and policy violations. But that night, Vince put us all to shame. Furiously shoving his way to the center of the crowd, he ripped the tripod from the bonfire and threw it onto the grass. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “That was someone’s art! What gives you the right to destroy someone else’s art?”

He was, of course, unassailably right, and in a moment, the energy of the crowd deflated, coated with shame. Dustin was mortified, transformed from hero to villain in an instant, and he stammered out a lame apology for an indefensible act: “I don’t know, dude, I just wasn’t thinking.”

Although Dustin was the specific target of Vince’s wrath, each of us knew that we were complicit in the event. Although we hadn’t burned the installation ourselves, none of us had had the courage to stop it. The next day, as they marched to their graduation, each senior passed the charred tripod, on which someone had hung a sign: “Vandalized June 7, 1989.”

A few years ago, as I explored the process of developing a community culture of integrity, I wrote to Vince about this incident. His thoughtful response included the following rumination:

“While I may have risen to that particular occasion, I also had a history of making some terrible, very uncourageous decisions, some of which affected our peer group. Most of my bad decisions were rooted in insecurity, fear, and total self-absorption, and I am naturally regretful of some of the things I did and said. I don’t know exactly why I bring this up . . . I think it may have something to do with viewing other people, or ourselves, as fallible but ever capable of courageous acts, no matter what we may have done in the past.”

Vince’s insight inspires me, and reminds me of the yet-untapped potential for honor in all of us. There is no moral pedigree required for committing an act of public integrity—only belief in a principle, and, in that particular moment, just enough courage to stand up for it.

What do you think of this sort of bravery? Have you ever risen to the occasion yourself or witnessed an act of public integrity? What was the impact on you, and on others? Have you ever wished you’d acted, but for some reason, did not?

—Karen Guttentag, Associate Dean of the College

3 Responses to “On Courage”

  1. Tim says:

    This is a great post, thanks. Bravery can obviously happen in dramatic, public situations like the one described here. But as important are the small acts of courage that take place every day, in the ways we treat each other, and the standards we set: call them acts of private integrity. If we decide that we want to live in a community that’s built on mutual respect, we are required not only to provide that respect ourselves, but also to make it clear to others when we feel they are not doing so. The good news is that, usually, you don’t even have to raise your voice. But you do need to make sure they hear what you have to say.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I can think of an instance when I did not speak up, and the person most affected was me—I lost respect for myself. A friend whom I admired very much invited me to join him and some of his friends for dinner in Montreal. We drove up together and sometime during the evening, they began telling really horrid, racist jokes, which they appeared to find hilarious. The jokes were mean, and even if no one else heard them, I think they were damaging, just by their existence.

    I was miserable. I hated these people; I was stuck with them until I got home. But, I said nothing. I did not ask them to stop; I did not pull my friend aside and tell him how offensive it was. I just endured.

    I never told him how I felt. I just quit associating with him. So, I lost the opportunity to demonstrate integrity and perhaps to educate others. I’ve asked myself why I was so uncourageous. I hope I would do things differently now.

  3. anon says:

    The urge for destruction is also a creative urge – Michael Bakunin

    Whose to say burning the work would not have been an artistic act in itself?

    Would it not “ultimately reflect a profound truth about the ephemeral nature of ideas” in the face of humanity’s more destructive natural “elements”?

    It is precisely the act of destruction that forms the key to the liberation of the human spirit from passivity…

    The beauty of the carnevalesque is that, for a brief period of time, our socially constructed ideologies about power, property, and even “art”, are challenged and overthrown…

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