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Column: Rival versions of student life

I have previously used this space to suggest some indications of the fragmentary nature of undergraduate life at Duke. This has included commentary on the difficulty of holding certain conversations outside of restricted spheres, the implicit moratorium on politically incorrect speech, the dominance of pre-professional aspirations for which the liberal arts are a decorative afterthought, the hypocrisy of selectively applied diversity platitudes and the adversarial nature of social life priorities played out between students and administrators. The full consequences of such fragmentation merit further exploration.

What we find at Duke are radical practices of compartmentalization. Between the classroom, sports teams, job interviews, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, students engage in a constant flux not simply of activities, but also of values, priorities, reasoning and aspirations. The consequence is a culture that is as schizophrenic as it is diverse, in which undergraduates continually adopt and divorce rival versions of student life and are formed, over time, into individuals incapable of viewing their lives as a unified whole. Two consequences follow--one personal, one political-but to understand these we must first attend to a few of the rival versions of student life prevalent on this campus: student as consumer, student as trainee and student as scholar.

The view of student as consumer is by far the most pervasive. Students are (high) paying customers at this institution who expect to receive quality goods in return--good housing, good food, good education and good times. A glorified cost-benefit analysis guides fundamental decisions within this mentality. Classes are chosen so as to satisfy minimum distribution requirements and maximize amusement and free time. It is no wonder then that entertainment becomes a central task of Student Affairs (pillow-padded entertainment to be sure), and Larry Moneta employs rhetoric of "service delivery" to describe obligations towards students. Hefty tuition bills must always find justification in bottom-line benefits.

Student as trainee is a somewhat related but fundamentally different concept. Within this mentality, one attends Duke in order to attain a very specific, practical ability. This is characteristic both of top-tier athletes as well as pre-professional students. The goal is to develop over four years in such a way that upon graduation one is ideally positioned to become a professional I-banker, basketball player, medical doctor, etc. This may necessitate a certain narrowness of focus and isolation within the Duke community so as to dedicate oneself fully to this process.

Student as scholar is perhaps a more rare phenomenon, though this aspiration is likely healthy amongst a good portion of underclassmen. Within the scholarly view of student life, the purpose of a Duke education is to broaden one's understanding of the world. There is a notion that the liberal arts actually free the individual from the ignorance of youth and tyranny of popular thought. This is often done at great risk, for it is always unclear what the outcome of this engagement will be, and it is likewise an endeavor whose progress is difficult to measure by the rubric of immediate benefits or job offers.

These are, of course, not always mutually exclusive visions of student life. Certainly, for example, there are students who are paying good money to be trained as scholars, and even more for whom training as an investment banker is consonant with a consumer maximization of Duke experience. I need not dwell on these, for what is important is the degree to which these visions clash at the margins. What we observe within each version of student life are different claims regarding the purpose of time at Duke as well as a different hierarchy of values by which to judge various opportunities. Very few of us fully inhabit one sphere or another. Rather, we find ourselves constantly moving between them and having to modify the type of justifications we give for what we are doing at any particular moment. What counts as a good reason for going out Thursday night will be different if someone is wearing the hat of the scholar or the consumer. Unless someone inhabits one vision exclusively, he or she will not have any good reasons for choosing to be guided by one set of values over another. Not only, then, must these higher-order choices of reasoning be to some degree arbitrary, but there is the added difficulty of coming to terms with the question "who am I" in our university setting.

This is to say that answers to questions such as what I should do as a student of this class, as a member of this team, as a brother of that frat, as a job candidate and as a socialite are in many instances incommensurable. Rather than adopt one identity by which to principally judge all others, I would contend that most students pursue a day-to-day pragmatic and incoherent jumbling of priorities.

The first consequence is personal and involves the resulting difficulty of viewing one's life as a coherent whole. This is acutely evident in the realization that most seniors have recently had, namely that none of us, even the pre-professionals, really know what we want to do with our lives, let alone next year. Making choices beyond Duke requires an uncommon clarity regarding the kind of person one is in the process of becoming, and this is a clarity fundamentally absent from the fragmentation of campus life.

The second consequence is political and borne out both on campus and in larger society. We are unable to have conversations about the public good, because we quickly discover that there is no public good as such, but only the diverse and incommensurate goods of compartmentalized activities. Students as well as citizens are given good reason to abstain from the trite and inconclusive "democratic" politics of both DSG and the U.S. Congress. Thankfully, very few people vote, and the morons we send to either legislature are kept in check by the few special interests that enough of us share in common.

What I have sketched here is but the beginning of an outline of a much larger critique of Duke life that is sorely needed. It is the kind of critique that Duke Inquiries on Gender, Student Affairs and Nan's presidential committees would pursue if they were really serious about understanding the grave pathologies of undergraduate life. It would mean however, questioning the very foundations with which we are all much too comfortable and well acquainted.

Bill English is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Monday.


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