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I do not love thee, dear Old Duke

Umbrellas bobbed along the Bryan Center plaza.
Umbrellas bobbed along the Bryan Center plaza.

"I do not like you. I cannot say why, but this much I know: I do not like you.” I was asked to translate this quip in my first semester of Latin at Duke. Since then, Martial’s beautiful bluntness has summarized how I’ve felt about this place as often as not. It’s one of our most sacred traditions: there are things at Duke we like, and there are things at Duke we do not like, and it is unfashionable to like everything.

In that best Duke spirit of complaining about what goes on here and doing nothing to fix it—I graduate in just over three weeks—here are a few of my (least) favorite things.

In my time here, I have been unendingly baffled at the mania for “service work” and “volunteerism” that achieves little more than making the volunteer feel good about themselves. Perhaps I misremember, but as I recall Mother Teresa made a bit more of a commitment. And the way too many of us use this service, to be “well rounded” in the next round of applications, is appalling. What is the intention? To see what happens when systems which create inequality are in full operation, so that we have a better chance of getting a corner office in those same systems?

If you like consulting, “consult” with your better angels whether your fair-weather activism achieves lasting and sustainable good. (A clue: it does not.)

In my time here, I have never understood why our first impulse is to division rather than reconciliation. At almost every opportunity we burn bridges where we could build them. Take a paradigm of the Duke Protest (trademark pending): a recent article marveled how the unelected People’s State of the University has been meeting with the administration. Did it occur to anyone who stormed a stage that they might have gotten farther, faster, by asking for a meeting? By asking for dialogue? Our student community used written advocacy and requested meetings and reversed work reassignments for housekeepers. Our student community used written advocacy and requested meetings and convinced the administration to partially reverse its decision to remove healthcare from certain student financial aid. From the news breaking to the resolution being reached, hardly a month went by. No wonder, that snapping the olive branch sooner than offering it has held them back so long?

Throwing yourself onto a sword does not make you a martyr. If no one asks what you have to say, perhaps you have yelled so loud and long that you never gave them the chance to engage you.  

In my time here, the “social scene” has been an unending and grotesque ballet of self-debasement. What do we free-thinkers do the minute we join campus? Find a ready-made group of friends and remake ourselves in their image, of course! Do you find that your work-hard-play-hard lifestyle, doing what other people tell you to do to “fit in,” is taking a toll? Why then, pre-med, play the physician you hope to be and heal thyself!

If your choices unerringly cause you distress, make different choices. If you allow yourself to be shaped by every passing tide, do not be confident that anything you call yourself will survive in the comprehensive ocean of life outside of Duke.

In my time here, I have seen people of promise do what I hold ill-guided at best and stupid at worst.

In my time here, I have not once doubted that these people do what they do because they care, and deeply.

Do people act on this campus in manners with which I do not agree, not to the worth of a cause but to the manner of its carriage? Yes. Do people on this campus seek community in ways that can most gently be described as toxic? Yes. Do people try the same counterproductive models and the same backward plans and pine for different results? Yes. But they do this—my peers do this—because they want to at least help someone and they want to change things and they want to build community, somehow. Your methods baffle me. Your sincerity heartens me.

When I ask 'does the academy matter?' I suppose I wonder how four years’ retreat into this stone ring in the middle of a forest prepares any of us for “the real world,” or whatever corner of it we ourselves will enter. And I think, four years on and in this chapter’s waning light, I have found my answer. The academy makes us care. We come to a place like Duke, and we find in our friends or our groups or causes or classes or any number of things some gap in the world that seems just our size and shape. We chase the chance to supply this lack, often imperfectly, often unevenly, often obliquely, yet ever sincerely.

Paul wrote that “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” and I cannot think that any of you would have been so resolute in your chosen path—whatever I thought or think of it—if you did not have love for what you were doing. Not some shallow candy-heart feeling of doing something nice, but a real intention of bettering whatever you were a part of.

And my only hope, chiding and exhorting and waxing philosophical for the last time, is that you continue to care. Applications are out for the next semester’s columnists, and I exhort you to apply. You’ll read those words, or this school will read yours, and that will be the discourse you have: the product of your collective loves and hopes. You may forget “the academy matters,” but never forget that what you do here, that what the academy is, matters deeply.

And there is nothing I want more—no better fate for someone in a classroom—than to be forgotten: for whatever work comes after to run and to look farther than he could ever have hoped.

Permit me one last chiding. Be the good Duke students you are, and do this column one better.

Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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