She told me that I had an infection. That my body surrendered as a bacterial pathogen quietly fought its way in. That my unremitting back pains, my perpetual fatigue, my loss of appetite were all merely symptoms of its invasion.
She told me I had an infection. Similar to how Mississippi students are infected by low literacy. How the Deep South is infected by “deep” obesity. How our black boys are infected by a cycle of imprisonment. You witness the effects, but the causes—the pathogens—are hidden deep, deep within.
Eyes fixed on the monitor and fingers racing across the keyboard, she told me I had an infection. But the only thing infecting my body was her apathy and her inability to search beyond her medically prescriptive dictionary.
I was with my doctor at 12:05 p.m. I was back in my bed by 12:23 p.m. And all I could think about was how she got it all wrong.
Unfortunate as it is, “getting it all wrong” will not be new to Duke students.
Duke is at the vanguard of social and scientific innovations and breakthroughs. With a few Nobels under our belt, we think we have a good sense of how the world operates, literally down to the atom. And there’s good reason for this. Duke is a warehouse of knowledge, providing students with Tom Ford glasses to see the world. No, but like actually see the world. With over half of students abroad at some point during their Duke experience, we think we have a strong, clear and right idea of what the world looks like.
But at a maximum of five months studying on foreign land, the classrooms must fill in the experiential gaps. Academic departments facilitate discourse that introduces students to new countries, religions, policies, disparities and innovations. Mother Blue Devil guides this discourse, so that we can identify problems. Mother Blue Devil then trains us with evidence-based methods to solve the problems we “discover” in these “new lands.” And then She tells us, “Young Blue Devils, these methods have proven helpful time and time before, so you must continue to follow the methods.”
I get it: This traditional scientific approach is seductive. This approach is also not new to me (nor is it new to most people on campus). My father is a chemical engineer, my mother a math teacher, and before Duke, I went to a boarding high school, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. So, yeah, I get it. There are problems in the world waiting to be discovered. Then, there are solutions to those problems. And there are scientific methods to finding that solution. And oh, do we radiate with golden halos once those problems are solved. Our designer education has sculpted another perfect solution. Empirical knowledge is seductive in that way.
But empirical thinking doesn’t tell us the full story. It highlights the products and reactants while blurring the intermediates, catalysts and physical environments.
It creates the West, ignoring the Rest’s influence on its development. It creates infected bodies with infected parts, stifling the body’s voice. It creates the developed world, ignoring the struggles of the disenfranchised in the developed world. (Because let’s be real, some regions and subpopulations within America share more similarities with the Third World than the First World.)
Empirical thinking engenders answers, without asking all of the questions.
That’s why there’s more to poverty than structural violence, as there’s more to obesity than lack of healthy dietary choices, and as there’s more to illiteracy and black boy imprisonment than broken homes. And that’s why my doctor stopped at bacterial infection, although my symptoms hinted otherwise.
The pathogen didn’t fight its way into my body. I opened the door for it, as my exhaustion, anxiety and lack of focus physically blockaded any mental or physical rest. My body was speaking what my mouth could not say.
We are a premiere research institution with a very fine brand name—and with a reputation deserving of such. But maybe we can be more. Maybe we can do more.
Let’s use our privileged designer shades to push the boundaries of our conversations. To jump ahead of the competition’s status quo. To advocate and guide a more comprehensive, critical way of thinking, instead of the reactionary vision some disciplines currently take.
And if one group is best poised to initiate this conversation to be more inclusive and preemptive, it’s students. We represent a vast background of orientations and stories, and our diversity is the greatest asset to including the right questions in our methods. The disempowered in the communities we left behind to attend Duke are depending on us to have these conversations. Our education is for more than us.
Ditch the answers. Pose some questions. Fog your Tom Ford glasses. Because learning should not be comfortable, and learning should not be about finding answers. Especially when some communities, like Mississippi’s illiterate, obese and imprisoned black boys are begging to ask their own questions to us.
Leena El-Sadek is a Trinity junior. Her column normally runs every other Monday.