Last week, while desperately seeking distraction from work, I was delighted to see the Duke Senior Survey appear in my inbox, procrastination manna from heaven-or at least the provost's office. I pretended someone was interested in my individual opinion, and I wasted a solid 30 minutes to boot.
One question, though, stopped me in my tracks: "Would you encourage a high school senior who resembles you when you were a high school senior (same background, ability, interests, and temperament) to attend your college?"
My parents, despite being part of what was clearly a fringe subculture in their undergrad days, raised me on a steady diet of stories from college that reinforced the ideal of unrelenting devotion to alma mater. That's a feeling I will never have about Duke. My time here has been, and always will be, defined by my complicated relationship with it.
It would be easy and perhaps cathartic to pen a wild jeremiad against this place, against stifling norms, etc. But those have been the topics of millions of stale, unoriginal Chronicle columns for at least a decade (don't complain-as editor, I had to read more of these than you can imagine). More importantly, as much as I enjoy hearing my friend Ben Shelton's diatribes about the "Gothic Wonderland"-a phrase that ought to be banned-I don't think they do justice to the University or the experience here.
The weird contrasts of this place are what make me love Duke, in the same strange way that I love my dysfunctional, stifling Rust Belt hometown of Akron, Ohio. I like that I can rail against the administration's intractability one afternoon and then run into and talk trash with the executive vice president at the James Joyce that night.
I like that my friends in SHARE think The Chronicle is the Man and that the media establishment ought to be fought, and that my friends at The Chronicle think SHARE consists of lunatics, drug addicts, space aliens or all of the above.
I like that my group of friends includes Arabs, Jews, blacks, whites, Hispanics, men and women, first families and first generations, people of fabulous wealth and modest means-all of whom I hope to know for the rest of my life. That does not change my conviction that there are very serious issues of race and especially gender and class on this campus. They need to be dealt with in a more serious and real way than with any ill-conceived, rashly written "Listening Statement" or Campus Culture Initiative.
I have had the opportunity to get to know administrators-particularly John Burness, Peter Lange and Tallman Trask-whom I respect very much-and with whom I have had major disagreements. These people are sometimes wrong, but I believe they make their decisions with Duke's best interest in mind. And yet I am routinely incensed by the paternalistic, deaf-eared dismissive attitude that the administration, as a whole, takes toward the student body, and by what seems like an utter lack of accountability anywhere, from students to employees to administrators.
My education here has been first-rate; I have had several tremendous professors, people erudite, brilliant and prominent but still interested in cultivating undergraduates. Through The Chronicle, I have met several important mentors, both students and alumni. And yet I can't help but feel that T-Reqs are a massive waste of time that don't really produce well-rounded students. How easy is it to graduate without reading Aristotle or Kant, Darwin or Luther, Marx or Milton? Extremely: I will.
These tensions guarantee I will never feel about Duke the way my parents feel about Virginia. I'm OK with that; maybe a more ambiguous experience is more fitting for the learning experience college is intended to provide.
And for all my hesitation, I know that I have had the cliche "experiences-here-I-will-never-forget": Things like the sensation of walking on the hushed Main West Quadrangle in the wee hours of the morning with a haze slowly lifting, the soft, artificial lighting illuminating those preposterous but still somehow pleasant Gothic stones.
As for that survey question-well, after dithering for a while and clicking both "Probably would" and "Probably would NOT," I settled on a comfortable (and noncommittal) "Maybe."
If only there had been an option for "It's complicated."
David Graham is a Trinity senior and former editor of The Chronicle. He would like to thank Steve, Skwak, Tiff, Saidi, Iza, Ryan, Ball, Moore, BBL, LG, JTM, Leo, Nick, Kindrew, Paps, Fredo, Sean, Shreya, Jia, Pete and countless others he feels terrible about skipping, who have formed so much of the positive part of his Duke experience.
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