Here’s a riddle: What do I-bankers, activists, bank robbers and Duke students have in common? Answer: (Cue the Beyonce music) “Got a big egooooooo, such a huge egoooooo. …”
It’s called the drum major instinct, a term coined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech delivered on Feb. 4, 1968. He described the concept then as “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” In the context of the civil rights struggle, the drum major instinct was a universal impulse that King applied at multiple levels, from the macro struggle for superiority between nations, to the history of white oppression of non-whites in the U.S., to the quotidian desire to impress ones’ neighbors and “keep up with the Joneses.”
Far from being outdated, certain sound bites in the speech instill an absolute certainty that MLK must have attended O-week. How else, besides attending the activities fair, could he have so aptly described “the joiners”? (In MLK’s words, “You know, there are some people who just join everything. And it’s really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. ... And the little fellow who is henpecked at home needs a chance to be the ‘Most Worthy of the Most Worthy’ of something.”) He clearly received an acceptance letter from Duke (“I got a letter the other day. … And it opened up, ‘Dear Dr. King: As you know … you are categorized as highly intelligent, progressive, a lover of the arts and the sciences, and I know you will want to read what I have to say.’”) He may even have developed the persuasion that we Duke students are not quite grownups yet (“Children ask life to grant them first place. They are a little bundle of ego.”)
The drum major instinct—that desire for recognition and importance—is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s why many of us are at Duke now, why the University produces so much innovative research and why the Cameron Crazies are national legend. It’s probably at least 60 percent of why this article is being written. However, it’s also at the heart of why we overextend, do things we regret (or probably should regret), buy things we don’t need, build lofty expectations that more often than not we can’t achieve. It’s at the heart of why there is societal value for an exclusivity that prevents us from interacting positively with people who are different from us.
If the impulse to be first is allowed to be our dominant motivation for doing things, then there’s no guarantee that the results will be positive. Look at the history books. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adolf Hitler are two of the most prominent historical figures of the past century, and at polar opposite ends of the hero-villain spectrum. Yet their fame in those same middle-school textbook pages is roughly equivalent. Moving off of King’s idea of the drum major instinct as a universal trait, it’s possible to say that a desire for recognition was the common denominator between them, though their lives and worldviews were dramatically opposed. The difference lies in how that desire is channeled.
So, self-diagnosis time for all the little bundles of ego. How will you channel your drum major instinct? Dr. King concluded his speech by outlining how he would like to be remembered when he died, but in our case we’ll twist it slightly: How do you want to be remembered when you leave Duke?
Maybe you want to be remembered as “that kid.” You know, the one all the stories are about—as in “that kid who bought himself a golf cart for his birthday,” or “that kid who told Dean Sue she was attractive at commencement.” Maybe you want to be remembered for your brilliant research. Maybe you’d prefer academic notoriety of the horizontal variety. Maybe you’re a real champ and you want it all.
And perhaps, like King, you dream of recognition for having been a part of something larger than stories or research or sex. Perhaps you’re one of the few who dare to distance yourself from what is safe in order to produce what is great. As we all prepare to honor Dr. King on Monday, I realize I don’t have answers, just questions, and—confessions of a drum major—I’d like them to be recognized.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. “—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ellen Paddock, Trinity ‘14, is chief of campus culture for Duke Partnership for Service. This column is the second installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.