This coming December marks the ten-year anniversary of Reynolds Price’s Founder’s Day address. If you get nothing else from this editor’s note, I hope it prompts you to read Price’s speech. He speaks candidly about the status of Duke’s intellectual climate. He avoids the nebulous, hidebound responses that one might expect from a proud professor speaking about his alma mater. The address has had great meaning for me, more so as of late, now that I have more experience and a somewhat different perspective.
I won’t try to imagine what Price would say about Duke today. In the past ten years, Duke has grown in size and risen in prestige. Conversations about Duke’s intellectual climate are not uncommon—and I’m sure I’m not the first to write an editor’s note on the topic—though these conversations are pursued with less enthusiasm now than they were a decade ago. (Take a look at The Chronicle’s news clippings from 1993 with the keywords ‘intellectual climate’ and you’ll see what I mean.) The discussions have shifted, over the past few years, to include new talking points: Tailgate, the purpose of academic scholarships, purported crackdowns by administration on West Campus section parties. But much of Price’s speech still resonates with today’s Duke.
I’m not writing this note to disparage Duke’s intellectual community. I don’t think there’s need for that sort of essay, and if even there is, I’m probably not the person to write it. Instead, I’m writing to share with underclassmen what I’ve learned in the past three-plus years about what Duke has to offer students who desperately want to learn outside the classroom. I can’t offer much, but I think I would have liked to have heard a senior advise me in this way when I was a freshman.
If you think Duke is missing something, talk to professors and administrators. Faculty want to help grow the intellectual climate, but they often don’t know how. Administrators can’t exactly prod students to talk about films or scientific experiments or philosophy in their spare time. Adding more lecture series and formal dinner discussions, while nice, rarely accomplishes anything more than make Duke appear intellectual—i.e. it doesn’t change what students are talking about in their dorm rooms. What Duke can do is offer resources to make student-driven projects successful. If you want to run a poetry slam to showcase student poets, Duke can fund it and find space for it. If you want to have weekly dinners with student artists, Duke can provide the food. If you want to organize a field trip to Black Mountain College, somebody will help you. Professors will come to dinner with you if you ask them, and they’ll be wonderful company, but you have to be the person to ask first. It’s not that professors are aloof or uninterested. For the most part, I’ve found that professors really do want to talk informally with students but they either don’t think that students want to talk with them or they don’t know how to go about making those discussions happen. Which is to say, if you’re enthusiastic and creative, and almost every Duke student is, there’s lots of low-hanging fruit.
Likewise, there are plenty of students who want to have informal book clubs, who want to just sit down and play chess or Go, who want to drink beer and talk about films, but who don’t know other people who want to do those sorts of activities with them. A week ago I sent out an email to a bunch of students who I thought might be interested in having a low-key arts appreciation night. I bought some wine, booked a room on campus and promised to read some poetry, play some music and show a short film. I figured we’d have ten or eleven people show up. But there were thirty people there and many more called me or ran into me the next day and said that they wanted to come but couldn’t. I think that many Duke students are craving an environment where they can discuss arts and culture without the restrictions of the classroom and the expected commitment of a club. But almost every person in that room felt like those opportunities happened too infrequently. I got the same response last year when The Archive ran a poetry reading in von der Heyden called Salon (~150 students came). I often feel like Duke is on the cusp of something, that it could have a thriving arts community with just a little more courage and initiative on the part of students.
What Duke can’t offer, Durham often can. I don’t think this was as true in 1992 as it is today, but today’s Durham is filled with opportunities. Some of the most interesting and enthusiastic people that I’ve met, I’ve met outside of Duke’s campus. Talk to the guitarists who play on Ninth St. Meet the people at the new ADF studio. Strike up a conversation with the owners of Durham’s various used bookstores. And if you’re looking for events to go to, leaf through copies of Recess. Read the Independent. Hell, go to the gardens and people-watch.
I often feel like I have to escape Duke in order to come back to it with fresh eyes, with enough passion to keep going, with enough perspective to recognize how wonderful this place is and how much of a privilege it is for me to be here. Anyone who takes Price’s speech seriously will recognize that there is a lot that Duke can improve upon. But if there’s something missing from Price’s address, it’s that students are often the ones who are in the best position to make that change happen.