The English word ‘individual’ didn’t appear anywhere in the language before the beginning of the seventeenth century, and even after its first uses it didn’t describe a person until the mid-eighteenth. Despite its recent coinage, Enlightenment era thinkers like Locke swept it up into their writings about rights and freedoms and autonomy like it had existed since the fall of the Roman Empire. Their intellectual descendants proliferated the term in myriad literary nooks and crannies, notably the American Constitution and other of our founding legal documents.
But is a single person the smallest bit of humanity that is not capable of being divided, like the term implies? Still swimming in the intellectual waters we inherited from the Enlightenment and Modernism, westerners in general and Americans in particular think of themselves as individuals much more often than as collectives, as single points in a social network diagram rather than as a whole body composed of multiple people, a body which would wither and die away if in any way divided.
Duke University is one such collective body, and while it’s certainly less demanding to think of your own individual problems, needs and goals than those of the many different entities that compose the institution you interact with, that individualistic thinking cannot comprehend the whole picture of this incredible community. Duke is composed of several categories of people who hold a stake in the university and care about what it does and what happens to it. Like an urban mural or a ceiling fresco, I want you to picture them all arranged in a close group how they’re normally not pictured: right next to each other, sitting around a table, talking in earnest about the place they all love.
So sit with me around this table and notice all the different people that make this learning community a unique and individual place that would no longer be the same if any part were missing, in another series of archetypes that set the stage for greater understanding.
UNDERGRAD: As the youngest at the table, the undergraduate student speaks with the startling confidence of a child prodigy, high-pitched but unquestionably earned. As the first of the three siblings and the most recently arrived, the undergrad is still quietly steadying themselves from the dizzying process of orientation around this old table by the time they begin to talk; and while gripping Duke with the full force of life, they are frequently looking out the window mid conversation to see what their future might hold. Concerned, deeply loving and loudly critical of the university, it is an open secret that the undergrads are Duke’s most valuable asset.
GRAD STUDENT: While tired of doing so much work without appropriate compensation, the older sibling of the undergrad nevertheless loves being at the table with just as much force as their younger counterpart. In many ways the step-child with loyalties to their alma mater who isn’t Duke, the grad student is here for serious work and more mature conversation. If it were easy to earn a degree in medicine, law, divinity or any of the liberal arts, then the grad student wouldn’t have a problem doing it at the same time as teaching and researching and raising a family. None of it is easy, however, and the grad student’s fortitude and resolve inspires everyone else at the table.
ALUM: Now the eldest sibling at the table, the alum is not unlike the elder child who makes impactful decisions for their aged parent, Duke. The younger siblings understand the outsized power the alum holds, and often protest it, but they remember it passes to them eventually and don’t protest too much. The most capable of the siblings, with a proven track record in industry, government and research, the former students who love Duke bang their love on the table in the form of cash donations and the scholarships, building names, project teams and schools in which such donations result. Everyone at the table is careful not to make them too upset amidst the ambitious calls for change for fear of toppling their nostalgia.
FACULTY: Instructing the younger siblings is no small task, but even if it is a large one it is not so large as the task of discovering the world by way of research. The faculty member does not pass through the institution in four years like the undergrad or one to nine like the grad, but often stays for decades. They spend grueling hours pushing the borders of what we know with the quickness of the undergrad and the seriousness of the grad, corralling both of these into their effort. Teaching, grant writing, serving on committees and winning the institution its fame, notoriety and Nobels—the faculty member’s chair is adorned with the wear of so much effort. They embody the absolute core of Duke—research, teaching and learning—without which the university could never be.
STAFF: Without the staff, no one at the table would have chairs to sit in, an agenda to discuss, access to the room or even have known about the meeting. Librarian, accountant, operations manager, electrical and water systems operator, housing coordinator, departmental support and many other roles are often thanklessly completed by university staff. There is no Duke without them.
CUSTODIAN: Laboring daily so that students walk clean halls, faculty throw drafts into emptied wastebaskets and everyone uses a clean restroom, the custodians of Duke are the often neglected sustainers of the university project. Not a single thing could be accomplished at a Duke without their labor, and if that was not evident before, it has been made abundantly clear by the global pandemic that their role is key and cornerstone to every other. Their seat has been absent from the table before, but the others in the room hope to maintain a Duke where that is not the case.
ADMINISTRATOR: The work done by the students and faculty and supported by staff and custodians is managed by the guiding hand of the administrator. Speaking slowly and from a wealth of experience, the administrator knows Duke’s inner structures like no one else, and if we did not listen to them we would all disintegrate into floundering, disconnected stumps.
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FIDUCIARY: With the indenture in hand, the ink of J.B. Duke’s signature only just dried, the fiduciary sees the whole room full of stakeholders and smiles broadly at how successful this venture has been. But there’s more success to be had, so with meticulous perspective the fiduciary strategizes and collaborates and strategizes again to see this outrageously ambitious community around the table achieve it all. Their strategic contribution and guiding fidelity to the indenture create the possibility for Duke’s future, and in doing so have created its past and sustained its present.
PRESIDENT: Lone executor at the head of the table, the president listens carefully to everyone’s shouts, asides, complaints, critiques, praises, concerns and compliments. They know everyone in the room intimately, and think carefully before responding and deciding. The ten instances of the president have demonstrated how they are often the beating heart of the university, driving it to achieve all the outrageous ambition it can imagine.
DURHAMITE: Having built the room where the community gathers, the Durhamite’s seat has been contested and struggled with since the beginning. But no pod of dolphins, no matter how smart, can survive without the water surrounding them. Duke needs to hear the words of the Durhamite, and the collaboration that has been maintained in the midst of all the conflict has only ever made the university that much better. Its perspective is essential, and every businessperson, immigrant worker, city official and incarcerated prisoner composes it. You can’t say the table is full without them.
Do you see the whole picture? Every character in the fresco in just a bit more detail than you did before? You can’t consider the mural completed with any of them absent, which constitutes a serious case for why this collective body is a true ‘individual,’ and not just the people that compose it. Your particular life and its concerns are essential to it, but look around carefully and understand just how many others are essential as well. If you do, you might feel the warm grandeur of realizing just how wide and deep the space of this community is.
Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column “archetypical” runs on alternate Fridays.