When students learn that I have been at Duke since 1966, they sometimes ask if Dukies have changed much over the years.
No, Duke students have remained pretty much the same in terms of their intelligence, work ethic and competitive standing—which then and now are still at a high level. The greatest change among students has been their vast increase in charity work in recent decades.
Among other changes, one of the startling differences between now and then relates to grade inflation. My grade books from the 1960s reveal yours truly to have been a remarkably tough hombre, though not at all outside the norm and maybe even a little softer than most. In 1967, the highest grade I gave in one class of 28 students was a single A-, in a class of 30, two students got an A- and in another class of 30, I awarded one A—but no A- grades, however. The average grade back then was a B or B-. To get an A or A- required a truly exceptional performance.
What made those standards begin to crumble was the Vietnam War, from 1967 to 1973, which made failing students subject to involuntary military service, aka the draft. We faculty were aware that for every student we protected with inflated grades, some young fellow without access to college would have to serve in his place. But we couldn’t help ourselves—once grade inflation got started, it followed the same path as currency inflation, where bad money drives out the good. The need for a common standard across the disciplines caused the faculty at large to float upwards with the easy grades. At present, I understand the average grade at Duke and at similar schools to be an A-.
The faculty has also changed somewhat during this half century. For one thing, when I came to Duke, the flood tide of baby boomer enrollments made academic jobs plentiful, though still competitive at elite institutions. In recent decades, however, job competition at all levels has become excruciating, a plausible justification for whatever paranoia may be detected within faculty ranks.
The other major change for faculty has been what I consider a strong tendency toward self-indulgence regarding the curriculum. I refer here to the dismissive attitude toward tradition in some disciplines, not just at Duke, as though great thinkers and artists of the past have been so eclipsed by our current wisdom as to lapse into minor status. To be sure, the curriculum must always encompass revision, but the whole idea of a common body of knowledge—the concept of classic works—has been greatly weakened. A major reason is that innovation is the only road to professional success—expertise in tradition is professionally a dead end. But I believe that faculty are responsible for both innovation and tradition. Who else will preserve and honor the past if college faculty will not?
Campus mores have also changed dramatically. In my early years the stigma against gays was ubiquitous and extremely harsh, apparently causing several of my gay male colleagues to marry women as protective coloring, with unfortunate results for all concerned.
In the summer of 1967, Duke’s first black basketball player turned up in my Summer Session class, a youth named C. B. Claiborne. I was then and remain now suspicious about the fact that when the team went to its annual tournament in Greensboro, he was the only player left behind in Durham. Meanwhile, the Duke women—but not the men—were under strict nightly curfew, our two campuses were sexually segregated and parietal rules (in loco parentis) policed the dormitories. Fraternity parties always required a chaperone, usually a faculty member seated next to the only light aglow on the first floor.
Then, maybe 30 years ago, while a student at Brown was facing expulsion for sexual turpitude, she sued the school, with her parents’ support, for violating her civil rights, and the whole system of control and surveillance evaporated instantly. Because the legal age of adulthood had been lowered from 21 to 18, a rare good effect of the Vietnam War, the student at Brown could argue that school administrators had no authority to monitor her love life. At most schools, including Duke, this ended the regime of in loco parentis.
It may surprise current students to learn that the most needed technical innovation since I came here was not the computer, the Internet or the cell phone. Instead, it was the copy machine. Until the 1980s, the only access to a book or journal was the paper copy in the library. If you wanted to copy a page, you had to type or scribble a transcription. This meant that when you chased down that crucial journal entry or chapter in a book, you discovered only knife or scissors marks where someone had cut it out. The copy machine saved our books and journals from mass mutilation during the transition to our wondrous electronic age.
My space having run out, I end my hindsight here. But, my student readers, if any are still reading, you can be assured of this—after your next five decades, stupendous changes are sure to appear in your rear-view mirror. May they be as benign as mine have mostly been.
Victor Strandberg is a professor of English. His column is the final installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.