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On using knowledge to serve society

“Knowledge in the service of society” is a widely professed strategic goal of Duke University. It is the guiding principle behind several partnerships, organizations and institutes on campus. Though some argue the axiom should remain a mere aspect of universities, “knowledge in the service of society” should be more than that, as it is the ultimate purpose of education.

Regardless of the means through which a student is able to attend a so-called “elite” institution for higher learning—whether through loans, parents, scholarships, financial aid or other forms of funding—university students are incredibly privileged to attain this caliber of education. Rectifying these inequalities, therefore, begin when one accepts the responsibility to use the knowledge they acquire to contribute to an improved collective condition of humanity—that is, to serve.  

The circumstances that bring students to institutions like Duke University are haphazard. We all easily could have been born into circumstances faced by the millions of children who will never receive a primary school education, let alone learn to read. An undergraduate experience is perhaps among the most formative opportunities. It is a time during which young people are surrounded by peers of their own age and high school graduates evolve into increasingly self-aware individuals. 

While a majority of Duke students come from high-income backgrounds, community service for many people may refer to serving one’s family by virtue of a stable job. Community service does not strictly translate to large populations conventionally defined as underserved. Rather, in its purest form, community service is simply about giving.

Universities present unparalleled opportunities to kindle these values in community service. In other words, they can cultivate nurturing environments that empower individuals to think of ourselves as vessels for social progress. At Duke in particular, there are several potential ways the entire community can underscore and strengthen the underemphasized connection between academic interests and a greater contribution to humanity.

Programs such as FOCUS integrate community service into semester-long learning experiences. The Duke Community Service Center in the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs is an incredible resource for news and opportunities pertaining to community engagement. Knowledge in the service of society is a tenet of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences curriculum philosophy. Similarly, DukeEngage “empowers students to address critical human needs through immersive service,” according to its website. 

Unfortunately, the training for some of these programs do not fully equip participants with a perspective on the underlying meaning and marginal relevance of their service. Furthermore, outlets to serve communities conventionally require a commitment over a particular discrete duration of time. This perpetuates the notion that community service is limited to volunteering.

At a 2007 panel on the role of service at the University, a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics remarked, “It shouldn’t be a requirement that [the brightest minds in academia] have large egos and small consciences—but it shouldn’t be prohibited.” The fear is that an emphasis on knowledge in the service of society will undermine fields, such as chemistry and philosophy, that do not appear to have as direct a link to community service as public policy does. 

In reality, an economics student who would like to one day use knowledge of individual consumption choices to develop fiscal policy that reduces poverty is an individual out to better society. To pursue a pre-medical track for future familial financial security is to serve a community, even if that consists of just one’s parents. A global cultural studies major who seeks to use prose to convey the interconnectivity of humans is actively serving, with their talent as a vehicle. These are but a few examples of students putting their knowledge to the service of society.

For university students, the allure of well-publicized research and opportunities to travel abroad should not distract from the greater purpose of these endeavors. These include researching revolutionary ways to effectively train community health workers in rural areas and exploring a new city to genuinely cultivate a different perspective that will inform the future service of social entrepreneurs. 

Drawing from these examples, the notion of applying knowledge in the service of society should permeate the conversations between students on campus. When discussing careers, coursework and more, there is an indispensable value to contextualizing our purposes in something greater than ourselves. 

Thankfully, there are several opportunities to strengthen a culture of spirituality and reflection—and likewise, several opportunities to commit ourselves to service. Awareness and intentional decision-making on these values, paired with administrative initiatives, can promote this self-awareness. 

In his 2015 book “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks defines two types of virtues: eulogy virtues and resume virtues. While individuals may have certain eulogy virtues that explain what they would like to be remembered for upon their deaths, people often resort to focusing on the resume virtues, which are short-sighted, career-oriented goals.

Our generation risks a dire identity crisis under the guise of self-branding and marketing. But as an obsession with fame and social media “likes” tragically become prerequisites for jobs and social affirmation, humility and moral care are all the more crucial. When the pressures of setting oneself apart to recruiters and projecting an active social life to outsiders become excruciating, a spiritual search can offer perspective on the virtues we value most. 

The sources from which individuals derive meaning in life varies greatly among Duke students, depending on cultural upbringings, faiths and general philosophies. However, we must all contextualize—at the very least—the purpose of our university degrees. The University’s widely professed mission to promote “knowledge in the service of society” must take on an entirely new meaning. After all, what is good is an education valued at more than the median U.S. income if its recipients do not recognize their fortune? 

Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. 

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