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'Effortless perfection' and neoliberalism at Duke

planting seeds

Almost immediately upon stepping foot on campus, most Duke students pick up on a pervasive culture of “effortless perfection.” Many students have already commented on this expectation to work hard and play hard, get perfect grades, have multiple leadership positions, conduct research, secure prestigious internships and still have a thriving social life. It’s a culture that has a truly pernicious effect on our mental and physical health, imbuing a deep sense of alienation, inadequacy, stress, depression, anxiety, and so on. 

Most of us clearly chafe against this impossible standard, and we remind each other frequently that what’s most important in life are our well-being, relationships with loved ones and memories we make with them. We urge one another to resist the pressure to overbook and overwork ourselves, to prioritize sleep, and to recognize that we’re not failures if we struggle. 

And yet, the pursuit of this elusive “effortless perfection” continues to hound us. The work hard, play hard mentality is taken for granted as a given part of Duke culture. You’re not a Duke student if you’re not cramming in Perkins, rushing off to your third meeting in a row or running on three hours of sleep. We wear our exhaustion as a perverse badge of honor. Collectively, there’s an acknowledgement that it’s messed up that so many of us are constantly stressed and drained, and yet here we are. 

Why? Why is the pressure to “succeed” so pervasive and ingrained? We should know better—and yet here I am, writing this column at 6:30 a.m. 

My purpose in this column, therefore, is not to reiterate what students have said long before I matriculated and perhaps will continue to say long after I graduate. Rather, I hope to expose the identifiable, political forces that shape our undergraduate experience and offer a language to understand these forces. We should not be content with resigning ourselves to the idea that “this is just the way things are.” 

We are attending Duke in the age of the corporate, neoliberal university. Neoliberalism as an economic model, which took off under the Reagan administration, is the triumph of free-market capitalism. In the wake of neoliberalism, universities have adapted by “acting like capitalist enterprises...and increas[ing] managerial control of faculty.” It’s increasingly clear that higher education is a business, and we are its customers. 

We make an investment of a small fortune in our education in hopes that the payoff is a degree that will secure better job prospects. In 2009, the cost of attendance at Duke was $53,035. This year, it’s $73,519. To make those hundreds of thousands of dollars seem worth it, Duke invests in flashy buildings and amenities (rather than prioritizing student health insurance). To cut costs and still maximize labor productivity, tenure track faculty positions are shrinking in number while Duke increasingly relies on the contingent labor of non-tenure track faculty to teach classes. 

And when I call Duke a neoliberal university, I mean it in an ideological sense as well. Neoliberalism as an ideology values individual responsibility, entrepreneurship, and self-management—in many ways it’s an extension of economic values into a broader social fabric. Analyzing how our lived experiences at Duke are shaped by neoliberalism can help us better understand why the culture “effortless perfection” is so damaging—and yet so persistent. 

I came from a competitive middle school and high school—as many Duke students did—and I was taught early on to treat my peers as competitors rather than collaborators (or, perhaps, co-conspirators). The individualist logic of neoliberalism positions each individual as responsible for their own success. In the rat race that was my high school, the implicit prerequisite to gaining admission to elite, private institutions was to outcompete and devour one another in grades, extracurriculars, and volunteering. When I arrived at Duke, the pressure didn’t stop, and in some ways, it escalated. 

College has become a prerequisite for many jobs, ever since the post-World War II G.I. Bill made higher education accessible to millions of veterans—though the bill’s benefits only extended to white men. Especially in the corporate, neoliberal university, college is less a place for a romanticized notion of “intellectual exploration” and more a preparatory space to groom the next generation of doctors, lawyers, politicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs. 

In order to best maximize our individual marketability and chances of securing a good job after graduation, the logic of neoliberalism demands that we use every opportunity possible for self-improvement. We should major in something (usually a STEM field) that directly translates into lucrative careers. Our “leisure time” isn’t really leisure time at all because we need resume-boosters from organizations or activities that gives us a leg up in the internship/job/graduate school market and distinguishes us from our competitors. When I tell myself to practice “self-care” and not worry about my responsibilities for just one night, I feel guilty, fear gnawing at me that I’m not working hard enough, that I’m falling behind while everyone else is getting ahead. 

The ubiquitous stress of “effortless perfection” isn’t something that can be so easily remedied with puppies in Perkins or East Campus carnivals. As much as I tell myself that I can’t spend my twenties perpetually sleep-deprived and anxious, neoliberalism as an economic and ideological structure permeates Duke to its bones. I can’t opt out of the reality that after I graduate I need a job to survive, and if I want to survive I need to compete. 

This certainly sounds bleak and pessimistic. However, I want to argue that by giving a name to the systems that structure our lives, we equip ourselves with a vocabulary to articulate a different organization of the University and of society. To name the system is to begin to know it—and to begin to challenge the underpinnings of neoliberal capitalism that insist that the only way to live is through competition and exploitation, rather than through community care and collective resistance.

Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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