Duke’s most hotly debated issues—Tailgate, dining options, an ill-defined campus culture—often have little to do with the University’s educational mission. When we pine for the freedom to customize the college experience, we forget that Duke exists primarily to help us learn, not serve as a playground to our wildest collegiate desires. The Intellectual Climate Committee, which released its report today, has refocused the conversation on learning. Its findings, though not all clear, illustrate the importance of intellectual stimulation outside of class and point to the emergence of a changing student body desires more of it.
The committee’s basic finding—that intellectual engagement outside of the classroom is not as robust as it could be—exposes a serious problem in undergraduate social life. Although the majority of students wish to cultivate a love of knowledge, the report suggests not only that many students feel dissatisfied with the level of intellectual stimulation in their social lives, but also that they purge intellectual pursuits from their free time. Given the importance of a healthy intellectual climate to the central mission of higher education, the committee’s findings are disturbing, if not wholly unexpected.
The college experience, thanks to John Belushi and ESPN, has become so closely associated with activities other than learning that its underlying purpose—to produce knowledge and encourage intellectual development—can feel almost like an ancillary concern. The recurring debate of Tailgate, one of the largest University-sponsored events, exemplifies Duke’s confused priorities and legitimizes the belief that, in order to have fun, students must divorce their social lives from their academic interests. Indeed, non-academic activities constitute an important part of college life, and stellar athletics and a lively social scene distinguish Duke from its peers. However, these activities should come second to learning.
The quality of a school depends on its ability to educate, and Duke’s continued prominence will depend on fostering a vigorous intellectual climate. Students—and their parents—swallow Duke’s enormous tuition bill only because they expect to exit college knowing more than when they entered. Duke students know this at heart. If they did not, they would be better off spending that money to fund four years club-hopping in Ibiza.
We agree with the report that the pressures of credentialism hinder meaningful intellectual growth and obscure alternative paths to rewarding careers. The report does not offer prescriptions, but the committee’s findings should prod the administration to rethink how it allocates resources to encourage learning. Events like the library party go a long way in improving Duke’s intellectual climate, but the University should do even more to merge the social and the intellectual.
Despite the significance of its findings, the committee’s analysis remains incomplete. The report does not compare Duke’s intellectual climate to that of other universities, and some of its data will require more clarification before students or administrators can use it to structure changes in behavior or policy. However, we commend the group for undertaking the survey and exploring the issue at the core of the University’s mission. The committee has provided the basis for an informed discussion about the issue, and the results can help us think about how to reorient Duke’s undergraduate experience towards intellectual growth.