There’s a lot of brilliance among Duke’s undergraduates. But you’d never know that from looking at our dominant culture. In my four years at Duke, I have been struck by the amiable mediocrity that pervades undergraduate public discourse and self-presentation. Where are the obnoxious standouts, who have the guts to visibly provoke us and question our community norms?
Compared to students at other universities and even some high schools, it is stunning how seldom we challenge the status quo. Many of our student government leaders are essentially powerless because they have fallen into the trap of becoming too chummy with administrators. Anyone who has talked to them privately knows they can be refreshingly critical, but they always go back to the same gladhanding in public. We have the rest of our lives to compromise. Why not be acerbic and honest while you still can be?
Our newspaper is stifled by either amiability or mediocrity, depending on who is involved. The coverage is either good but not intrepid enough—and here I am a perpetrator, as former University editor—or it is bold and confrontational but marred by inaccuracy and sloppy writing. Most columnists are astoundingly mediocre, their arguments detoothed by a lack of knowledge and perspective.
I’d like to point out that in discussing student government organizations and The Chronicle first, I have revealed another problem in our undergraduate community: our reliance on established institutions. When we want to get involved with something—which is rare—we tend to go through known channels. We instinctively flock to the safe bet. Compared to the enterpeneurship at Harvard, Stanford and MIT, we are regular corporate shills.
Maybe that’s why they produce the Bill Gateses of the world and we produce the faceless senior managers and VPs. There are exceptions, of course, but not as many as there should be. Duke students—and I don’t exclude myself from this group—tend to follow the rules extremely well, and that gets them quite far within an established system. But true leaders don’t follow the rules; they break the rules and make new rules.
Christopher Scoville wrote in a 2003 Chronicle column that he is hardly freaky, but at Duke he is considered a standout freak. And he’s right—one lip stud and he is way out there on the margin of our always cautious community. There are a few other examples of visible, edgy self-presentation, such as Chase Johnson studying Italian in every stylized nook and cranny in Durham, Jimmy Soni displaying unfettered ambition and Ben Abram growing out a colossal afro and setting up a Sudanese shantytown. There are a few other standouts, but most of the real outliers are conspicuously quiet or so far out in the periphery that they are invisible.
There is, admittedly, something about publicly challenging norms that reeks of self-promotion. Breaking the mold of amiable mediocrity in a visible way often means being stylized, ambitious, arrogant, calculating and annoying. There’s nothing inherently superior about people like that, and in large doses—like at my high school, Phillips Exeter Academy—one longs for nice folks who don’t shove their uniqueness down your throat. But at a university full of pleasantly ineffectual organization kids, there is a far worse feeling: suffocation. Four years at Duke has challenged my ability to think out of the box. Most of us aren’t even aware that we’re confined within our narrow definition of social action and self-presentation, obliviously proceeding to the next stop on our trajectory of mild success.
My Duke experience has been immensely enriched by the wisdom of the faculty. Bruce Payne, Peter Wood—these are people who have seen generations of students come and go and know the peculiar way a Duke education can be liberating and stifling at the same time. Payne focuses on the outlying students who think differently and Wood talks about the legions who were not able to break out, but the message is the same.
Had I not talked with these mentors at critical times in the last four years, I might have obliviously continued down the beaten path. My fate is not yet decided by any means, but awareness of the box is a good first step toward thinking outside of it.
Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor for The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.
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