There are dangers to writing a column about an article. One is that many of you may not have had a chance to read The Atlantic’s “The Hazards of Duke,” by Caitlin Flanagan while making your way back to icy Durham. Another is that this is too meta already and I’ve lost you.
But there is too much wrong with Flanagan’s piece to ignore it. We’re in a tough position because by increasing the number of page views, we’re giving The Atlantic exactly what they want in writing yet another article about Big Bad Duke.
To summarize, Flanagan uses Karen Owen’s PowerPoint as a mechanism to talk about her conception of the dominance of greek life, alcohol and athletes on campus. She writes, “something ugly is going on at the university” as our university’s “thoughtful students are overshadowed by [our] voraciously self-centered ones.” However, about halfway through the article she pulls a 180 and starts discussing how women now outnumber men in meeting the clinical criteria for alcohol abuse. She then talks about... Lacrosse in 2006, sexual consent and the modern college woman.
She ends her piece by arguing that women at elite colleges are “traumatized by what takes place during so much of this mindless, drunken partying when they’re steeped in alcohol.” It’s really a smorgasbord.
It’s easy to criticize Flanagan for not doing any independent research or interviewing any Duke undergraduates. She takes opinions and numbers from other people’s articles, books and television shows. Her upcoming book, “Girl Land,” about “the emotional life of pubescent girls,” seems to inspire much of her analysis of “our” lives. She might excuse this criticism by saying she’s a cultural or literary critic rather than a journalist. But I would still hope she bases her myriad assertions at least somewhat in reality.
The bigger issue is that her rhetoric backfires. Arguing this school is “anti-intellectual,” she claims that anyone who doesn’t fit into her boxes is marginalized. But by saying that women are so impressionable they are overpowered by men, alcohol and the shadow of Karen Owen, she victimizes us. By us, I don’t just mean our University (which, by virtue of The Atlantic’s publication cycle got to start this semester with another formulaic Duke article). What I really mean is how it conceptualizes college-age women, because that’s who Flanagan targets with her condescension.
Matthew Yglesias has previously critiqued Flanagan’s “sweeping statements of social trends” on the Think Progress Blog. This also concerns Donna Lisker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, who wrote in an e-mail that “it’s easy to pick on the outliers and say they represent everyone, but it’s entirely inaccurate” and that “[Flanagan] would have come away with a considerably more complex picture,” if she had spoken to Duke women.
Moving on from the ad-hominem issue, I think we can use this article as a catapult to take back discussions of our University and make them student-initiated. Flanagan focuses on one type of Duke student, which definitely exists... but we’re not all identical, and we’re more diverse than she gives us credit for.
Jazz at the Mary Lou Wednesdays isn’t focused on alcohol, and the discussions you’re likely to have there definitely aren’t anti-intellectual. The dinners I had at both my Hebrew and English professors’ houses last semester certainly don’t fit into Flanagan’s portrait of our school. Duke’s focus on entrepreneurship and civic engagement isn’t motivated by self-absorption. Events and organizations such as the Me Too Monologues and Common Ground have wide exposure and appeal. Every dorm room rainbow flag is working to change perceptions every day. Groups like Project Wild don’t just do a pre-orientation trip, but operate all year as a social network to help newcomers navigate Duke and Durham. There is so much about Duke to celebrate.
These articles about make-believe “Duke” have real world ramifications. I remember reading Rolling Stone’s “Sex and Scandal at Duke” and vowing to never attend this institution. That piece terrified me, and if I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with real students, visit and find out that this is exactly where I should be that article could have changed my life for the worse.
We can’t concede total control of the dialogue about our University to those not at Duke and not in Durham. As Lisker says: “Reporters choose what to resurrect and what not to resurrect.” Let’s overcome that barrier to positive entry. Lisker added that Flanagan’s article is “patronizing about women and their sexual choices.” The way to combat such condescension is by proving that we each make the choices we make because we’re individuals. We at this one institution do not represent one viral anomaly. And we need to remember we aren’t the ones creating the hazards.
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Thursday.