As my time here is drawing to a close, I am beginning to see just how much Durham has to offer Duke. And this is embarrassing.
It’s embarrassing because fresh out of high school, Duke freshman-me was convinced that I had so much to offer. I could not possibly imagine what a dump like Durham might offer me. I chose Duke in spite of the dirty D.
Very often, Duke becomes all-absorbing—one of the more striking catch-22s of higher education. And, just as often, alumni express this wonderful free feeling that comes with finally moving outside the Duke bubble. Work ends at five and vacation means true respite. I yearn for this already. I want an escape from the bubble and the opportunity to put what Duke has given me to the test.
Last summer in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, my eyes were opened to the gaping holes in my education and to the ways in which my overemphasis on schoolwork had failed me. Admittedly, this was my first insight into what Mark Twain meant by: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” I wish I could say the same.
So my approach to senior year has been a move away from forward thinking and a reframing of my academics, my social life, Durham and Duke as an experience of value even when I don’t do as well as I want or a night doesn’t unfold as I’d hoped. This is what education really means: the sum total of classes and of our education in between.
True broadening of education means expansion beyond exams, lectures and essays. It means lifting our noses from our books, tearing our eyes away from our laptops, and putting a little more emphasis on being rather than perpetual doing. Being students and being Dukies, yes. But also being Durhamites, being curious explorers, being interactive citizens.
I take issue with the creation of programs designed as optional supplements to our education. We are paying $50,000 a year just to have the opportunity to apply for and engage in out-of-classroom experiences?
It’s like we are adding arteries to a broken heart or robust limbs to a crippled body or filler to an essay. These efforts are modestly useful. They’ll keep your heart pumping one more day. They’ll improve your mobility. They’ll get you to that 850-word limit. But the true root problem is painted over. In so many classes, I have gorged my head with knowledge, coming out full but unfulfilled. In so many ways, I had filled my social life with small talk, my experiences with Perkins and my weekends with drunken nights among almost strangers, and I, then, marveled at my emptiness.
I marveled until I decided to take my education into my own hands. I wish I’d known sooner the limits of institution-based learning. More than that, I wish Duke could try a little harder to offer synergy between theory and practice. I know how to think, but struggle with how to be.
Painting over with programs like DukeEngage, service-learning classes and Duke Culture Initiative is like the tacky cobblestone wallpaper plastered on the wooden walls surrounding current construction. The rose-colored palette of choice may change year to year, but the void will remain. It will remain because it is easily hidden behind a cobblestone facade and because real interdisciplinarity and experience-based learning is expensive.
It will continue unless, that is, students and donors demand more from an elite education. It will continue unless, that is, we have more students like Jacob Tobia and more donors like the Bass Family. Rather than spending thousands of dollars planting bushes outside of Wilson Recreation Center only to uproot them a year or so later. Rather than pouring money into DKU and parties costing tens of thousands of dollars, design classes to be more experiential and relevant to the world outside. It’s no wonder the Board of Trustees and President Brodhead have redirected DukeOpen’s efforts at public disclosure of how our endowment is being invested. Public disclosure of such things might very well inspire outrage and the very change that Duke “can’t” afford.
We leave Duke, our minds seasoned to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems—critically and theoretically. And yet, this ongoing undue curricular emphasis on the theories of how things ought to work obscures the realities of unforeseen complications and of compromise. Hundred-page readings, hours spent staring at harsh black ink against bright white pages and lecture after lecture watching PowerPoint slides shelter us from the world we are expected to understand and change one day very soon.
Gracie Willert is a Trinity senior. Her biweekly column will run every other Monday.
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