I have nothing to say about romance, so if that was reason you began reading, stop. I do have something to say about raucous parties off East Campus, which have gathered such infamy of late. President Brodhead take note. I have chronicled the decline of Duke social life since the late-’90s. In many ways, my history with Duke is similar to yours with Yale, except I don’t have a distinguished scholarly career or a moustache to show for it. Yet.
Many years ago when I was young (i.e. an undergraduate) it used to be that parties off East Campus were always second rate. They happened primarily because older fraternity members living off campus were too lazy to mobilize themselves for an evening out, or for the explicit purpose of dirty rushing freshman candidates in the fall. The fact that parties off East are now considered “fun” and attract “people” is a damning indictment of social life on campus. When I was a freshman we threw parties in East Campus dorms that would have put any “Old School” reenactment to shame. (Alumni—dare I mention “Downtown Brown?”) And when I was a freshman, upperclassmen threw parties… on West Campus! Real parties, not just a collection of dumb, sweaty crowds sipping “natty-lite” behind closed doors. Furthermore, although there were some notable exceptions, the parties of Duke past were, overall, significantly less debauched than the basement bikini oil wrestling shindigs of today. I am not suggesting there was any golden age, but rather that things were and could be much better than they currently are.
Nor am I taking up the banner of hedonism. Rather, I mean to affirm the deep moral and intellectual purposes of a good campus social life. Very little true education takes place in the classroom. In most cases, classes simply introduce one to some raw knowledge, which requires the interest and challenges of friends to refine it into worthwhile understanding. Friendships furthermore, beyond being enlightening, shape us into the kind of people we are and will be. Are there, then, the social conditions for friendship on Duke’s campus? Of course there are, in some respect, on sports teams, in dorms, through various clubs and such. But Duke has little public culture or public space beyond these particular compartmentalized niches in which social life can flourish. One exception is the celebration of basketball—an interest in which most of the student body shares. Even it suffers, however, like so many other social occasions, from over regulation by the law and administration (or the administration’s overenthusiastic enforcement of the law). In the past few years, the closing of the student run campus bar, the crackdown on fraternities and the increased red tape associated with organizing campus events have all had the effect of constraining the possibilities of campus life.
One might object that there are plenty of symphonies, string quartets, plays, movies and ’Dillo bands coming through campus. Isn’t that a cultural base? Unfortunately it is not, for attendance at any of these events tends to be occasional and take the form of distracted entertainment. Perhaps the most overwhelming problem, however, is that Duke students are incredibly busy people and even their group pursuits can have a private character. Incredibly, too, more than a few undergrads have lives as pathetic as mine now and spend Saturday evenings doing homework or writing Chronicle columns. If students do engage in special Valentine’s Day activities today, they are likely to entail some version of “speed dating” or attending that banally awful production, The Vagina Monologues.
For civic friendship to flourish in the Gothic Wonderland is there anything that can be done short of flooding the quad with free beer every Friday? Indeed I hope so, for we are in circumstances so challenging that even alcohol may not help. Perhaps on this Valentine’s Day we should recall that any community is constituted in a fundamental sense by common objects of love. The support of and sharing in these objects is what characteristically gives purpose and vitality to a society. Can students identify common goods worthy of their efforts and can administrators give them the liberty to pursue them? Or will the basements off East continue to be a sign of frustrated desires?
Bill English is a political science graduate student. His column appears every third Monday.