Moral Purpose Award

By Rachel Revelle

Moral-Purpose-300x225Duke and UNC undergraduates take note: there are just less than two weeks remaining to apply for the Kenan Moral Purpose Award. The award is given for the best undergraduate student essay on the role a liberal arts education plays in students’ exploration of the personal and social purposes by which to orient their future and the intellectual, emotional, and moral commitments that make for a full life. We now partner with the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC to generate one winner for each school, both of whom will receive $1000.

When the award was established in honor of the Kenan Institute’s 15th anniversary at Duke, I was a senior and decided to submit an essay.  It is with contented nostalgia that I present my entry here, as a way to both promote this year’s contest and to reflect on what has now been another chapter of my life with Kenan helping to direct my moral compass.

President Brodhead’s commencement speech to the Class of 2011 directed us to use the points of the Duke compass in order to navigate our world here at Duke and beyond.  He listed excellence, community, education, and the crutch for the other three: engagement.  We should strive for the very best; we should challenge, support, respect, and enjoy the company of such a diverse community; we should always pursue opportunities to be an intelligent contributor to the world at large.  But above all else, we should engage with one another and the community around us, in Brodhead’s words, to “enlarge each others’ understanding.”  Engagement was the task set before us, and if I am able to express development in my moral purpose then I am pleased because it means I have succeeded to some degree. 

Just as Duke has a compass, individuals have an inner compass to direct their path.  The dual process of studying ethics and growing into adulthood have taught me the importance of solidifying a moral compass by which one can be guided in all decisions.   Built into my compass are my past, my education to date, my family and community heritage, and a strong Christian faith.  These things will always be a part of me, and have actually been confirmed and appreciated in many ways by being a part of a different environment.  The beauty of a compass, though, is that it keeps you on track while also leading you into new and wonderful adventures. 

I have been able to pursue my interests and discover new ones, to develop a real passion for literature and the collection of books, to travel in the U.S. and abroad, to be a part of the Durham community through a local church and various service programs.  All of these experiences depended on the people that were a part of them, the people that enlarged my understanding.  Several examples of lessons taught to me: Innocence from the child I mentor in Durham, tolerance from the Muslim refugees I worked with in Dublin who shared so many of the same values and ideals, analytical pursuit from my religion professors who have furthered my knowledge of the Bible regardless of their own religious views…  I feel more and more strongly that it is by being open and understanding of others that we learn from them and discern how their worldview fits into our own. 

Here I must pay tribute to Peter Euben’s gateway ethics course, which put me on the path to some of my most stimulating academic and extracurricular experiences through Kenan.  One of the most powerful concepts for me, and which often shaped our discussions, was Hannah Arendt’s “moral imagination.”  Professor Euben advised us that the more points of view we could incorporate into our own, the more rich and complex the world would be.  Complex, yes.  My roommate and I are probably not going to reach a consensus on the existence of God.  But rich? Absolutely.  Our late night conversations have been monumental in learning to define and explain my beliefs.  I have had to transition from the view that Christianity must be the underlying model for character, yet at the same time I have strengthened my own faith. 

President Brodhead would be pleased to hear that more than anything, Duke has taught me to engage with the world.  Whether it is a student in my class or a character in a Faulkner novel, they become more enriching when I take the initiative to learn more about them.  Except maybe for the folks in Yoknapatawpha County and the others taking residence on my bookshelf, there is a rewarding reciprocity in the process of engagement.  I hope I have enlarged the understanding of certain individuals here at Duke, and I believe I will be able to do so even more based on what I have gained from the past four years. 

I’m glad I had Duke’s institutional compass and my own moral compass to guide me, but what an amazing journey it has been!