It’s finally my last semester at Duke (God willing). As I walk through the mess that we jokingly call a student center, I can’t help but think of how appropriately the structure reflects my Duke experience. I don’t mean this in some sentimental sense, where I’m looking for the cheapest metaphors to summarize the years that I’ve spent here (although I can’t deny that I’m victim to that impulse). I mean it quite literally: the spaces and structures we occupy shape the way we interact with one another, the way we think, the way we imagine our world and its possibilities. As I’m preparing to leave this place, I think about the changes I’ve seen in the scenery around me as much as my own personal development. There are plenty of people who have been around this campus longer than I have. There are people who have wiser insights on space and subjectivity, on the role of a university, on the inner workings of Duke’s bureaucracy. For my first column as a second semester senior, I don’t have much else to offer but some humble reflections on my personal experiences as an undergraduate at Duke University.
I’ve grown in these spaces. Into an activist, a columnist, a barista, a lover, a spiritual seeker, a poet. I’m grateful for my growth at Duke, but I’m also aware of the struggles and depths I travelled to get to where I am. To find spaces where I felt safe enough to feel genuinely, to belong. At times it was too unbearable that I had to leave. Because of this, I am grateful for what Duke has offered me but also worried about its future.
The fact that the Bryan Center is an architectural monstrosity is more than just a point of ridicule and shame for the University. Its ugliness, its absurdity, is only reflective of what I see as the increasing irrelevance of this elite university to its imagined ends. It allows us to really look at the myth of “knowledge in the service of society.” Universities are barely institutions of higher learning anymore. Yes, I learned here. And not just academically, but also morally and spiritually. But when finance and consulting are the most popular industries Duke undergraduates pursue, one has to wonder what kind of spaces we occupy. When anywhere from one in four to one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, we have to wonder what kind of spaces we occupy. New talk of interdisciplinarity is just a fancy way of saying that Duke can teach its students relevant knowledge for the ever-changing corporate world.
Service used to have a more religious connotation. The only way the Duke Chapel really brings us together now, however, is in the moments we all stop in our tracks to appreciate its architecture in certain elements, whip out our phones for a picture and continue with our day. I’m not yearning for a day when church could unite us all for a higher cause. Church has always mystifyingly been able to advantage the powerful in society as much as it has been to serve the omnipotent. Elite universities like Duke used to serve that privileged class of rich, white, Christian males toward noble ideas. Now Duke serves the privileged class, as critic Walter Benn Michaels calls it, of “rich kids of all colors.” Increasing the socioeconomic diversity of Duke through different financial aid measures isn’t going to fundamentally change the make-up either; if you don’t arrive a rich kid, the idea is you come to a place like Duke to leave one. You can pretend you’re dedicated to knowledge and the academy, but you’ll just find yourself another part of the machinery. The decision to go into graduate school might be more cruel than becoming a slimy I-banker or consultant. The people at McKinsey know that they’re making money. The academic might deceive themselves into thinking they’re serving the production of knowledge when what they’re really doing is ensuring that the world of ideas is owned by corporate structures. If the suicide of Aaron Swartz, whose only crime was making knowledge public, doesn’t make this clear then it’s only a sign of how callous our spaces have already made us.
So what am I doing here? Truth is I don’t know. Sometimes I tell myself I came here because of the unique gathering of inspiring individuals that make up the place. Sometimes I really believe that to be the case. At the very least, I believe it’s what makes Duke not completely hopeless. I still think bright, inquisitive, poetic minds should have spaces to gather. I don’t know if elite universities are that place anymore. Maybe there’s a chance our young bright minds can be creative enough to create the spaces ourselves, either within or without universities. Or maybe the greatest course at Duke is a course on wandering through late capitalism. Often I must find comfort in poetry, like that of J.R.R. Tolkien from my childhood, “All that is gold does not glitter; Not all those who wander are lost.”
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan.