Duke Dean to Class of 2019: Question Authority

Nowicki urges students to challenge wisely

Dean Steve Nowicki speaks at the undergraduate convocation. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography

Thank you, President Brodhead, and welcome, Class of 2019! 

You know, as summer was fading and I was starting to prepare myself for your arrival, I decided a few weeks back to spend a day rearranging a room in my house, a house that my wife Susan and I have lived in ever since we arrived at Duke a quarter of a century ago.  Now, when you live in a place for a long time, no matter how neat and tidy you are, things can get lost and forgotten in out of the way places.  So, when you rearrange a room you haven’t done anything with for years, you just might stumble across something that you’d misplaced long ago.  And when you find something like this, something you hadn’t thought about for many years, it can lead to you to ponder.

This is what happened to me about a month ago as I did a thorough once over of this room.  Susan and I had decided that an old table could be taken out to reduce clutter.  It was when I was moving this table from the corner in which it had lived for many years that I heard a soft “clink,” sounding like a bit of metal falling to the wood floor.  Because my next step was to vacuum under where this table had stood, I thought I should first find whatever had fallen.

And that’s when I saw it.  A yellow button about the size of a dollar coin, with two words written on it that read “Question Authority.”  I’m wearing this button right now and although I’m sure you can’t read it from a distance, there it is:  Question Authority.

Members of the so-called “Baby Boom” generation – like me, or maybe even your parents or other, older family members – might remember this slogan, they may even remember this particular button.  You see, when I went to college, “Question Authority” served as a kind of generational mantra for us.  In fact, there’s even an entry in Wikipedia titled “Question Authority” in which you can read – and I quote – “the slogan became arguably the most accepted form of ideology among baby boomers.” Let me tell you, these buttons were everywhere when I went to college. 

And why not?  When I was in high school, the Vietnam War was still raging, tearing our nation apart.  Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and then just two months later Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, too.  The economy was stagnating, unemployment was rising, and race riots were raging in our major cities.  The year I went to college, Richard M. Nixon resigned as president, disgraced by the criminal activity of the Watergate scandal.  It’s no wonder that when I was in college, we embraced the slogan “Question Authority.”

So, when I re-found my “Question Authority” button a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but wonder about the quirk of fate that brought it back to my attention just then, just as we were preparing to greet you, Duke’s Class of 2019.  Now, like then, government seems broken.  Now, like then, injustice and racism are sparking protests and even violence across our country.  Now, like then, many parts of the world are torn apart by social strife, by economic disparity, and by war.  I wondered – half-seriously – if this button had found its way back to me because it somehow knew that it was going to come back into style.  Truth be told, “Question Authority” seems like it might be as good a mantra for your generation as it was for mine.

Actually, I’ll go farther than that.  I encourage you to question authority as you embark on your college education.  Whether or not you adopt that specific two-word phrase as a rallying cry, whether or not these yellow buttons come back into fashion, I suggest that one of the most important things you can do over your next four years at Duke is to cultivate the habit of questioning authority.  But as I say that, let me quickly add that I also hope that you do so more wisely than many in previous generations have done. 

Let me explain.

It might seem odd as you enter college that a dean, of all people, would ask you to question authority.  After all, don’t I represent authority?  Do I want you to question, for example, my authority to put you on double-secret probation? (should the need arise…)  More seriously, isn’t the point of you coming to Duke because we have the authority to provide you with a bona fide education?  If that is the point – and it’s got to be a large part of the point – how are you going to earn your degree if you don’t follow the rules, if you don’t acknowledge Duke’s authority and do what you’re told?

And it’s not just Duke’s authority that might matter to you, it’s the authority of professional schools you may want to attend later, the authority of employers you may want to hire you, the authority of whoever might have some say in your future success.  This might also make you feel pressured to toe the line just now.

Then there’s the law.  What if you decided to leave a restaurant without paying the bill and you tell the waiter that you’re just questioning his authority to charge you for the meal.  Or say you’re stopped by a state trooper doing 100 down the Interstate.  Imagine the response you’d get if you said “I’m just questioning authority, officer.”

Of course these examples are increasingly absurd, but they make the point that I’m not asking you to question authority for its own sake.  Questioning authority, as I would ask you to do it, doesn’t mean simply disregarding the rules of the road, whether those are traffic laws or curricular requirements; it doesn’t mean becoming an anarchist. 

I want you to question authority because, at its core, understanding when and how to question authority is what education is all about.  But to question authority productively, we need to think carefully about how to interpret those two words – “question” and “authority.”

Let’s begin with the word “question.”  A mistake made by many back when I went to college was to confuse this word with words like “reject” or “disregard” or “disengage from.”  This is a mistake because there’s no point in questioning something if you’re not interested in finding the answer.  We’re right to question authority when we think that authority is unfounded, unjust, or otherwise just screwed up somehow.  But if we ask the question, we need to be willing to help find the answer, understanding that the answer might be complicated, that it might be difficult, or that the answer might be different from what we initially think it is. 

To question something is to be skeptical and it’s good to be skeptical as a student.  Don’t believe what you’re told simply because someone with presumed authority has told it to you, whether in a lecture or a textbook, in a newscast or a government bulletin, on the web or published in an academic journal.  When someone offers you an idea, it’s good to ask where that idea comes from, to ask what reasoning it’s based on, to consider the evidence yourself before accepting the idea. 

But skepticism is not cynicism.  On hearing something that doesn’t quite make sense to you, that seems like an extraordinary claim, or that’s just different from the way you think, if you’re skeptical you might say “How do you know that?  Why do you think that way?”  A cynic, on the other hand, will say “I don’t believe you, and there’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.” 

A skeptic is willing to help find an answer when the question is called; a cynic simple rejects, disregards, and disengages.  Yes, I want you to question authority, but I want you to question in a way that’s engaged and productive, in a way that will help find better answers.  And – importantly – I want you to understand that reasonable people might sometimes differ in what they think the answer is, because they reasonably see the world from different perspectives.                                                                                                                              

Now let’s turn to the word “authority.”  To the generation that popularized this “Question Authority” button, the authority we questioned was whoever seemed to be in charge.  It was the government, it was the financial system, it was the so-called military-industrial complex – it was “The Man.”  It was something external to us, something we thought was outside of our control, certainly nobody we knew.

But there’s a mistake here, too.  This mistake comes from not realizing that authority we might think of as being external, as something separate from us, in fact usually depends on our own individual authority – our personal authority – in one form or another.

Of course there are external authorities.  Most of these external authorities are what we call “institutions” – organizations endowed with official power, having rules and regulations, organizations that do things which affect our lives in important ways.  But an institution’s authority is only as good as the collective personal authority of the individuals who create and support that institution.  You see, institutional authority eventually boils down to individuals and the actions they take as individuals.

There’s another kind of external authority that can have an even more pervasive influence on how we live our lives.  We might call this “cultural authority.”  Culture comes to us from many sources:  our families, the places we grow up, the books we read, the music we listen to, the movies we watch, our schools, our places of worship, our histories beginning even before we’re born.  Cultural authority is especially hard to question because it runs so deep, and because it often comes from places we value so much.  But, ultimately, culture also depends on the collective authority of the individuals who are members of that culture.  Even culture can change – and sometimes it needs to – through the agency of our own personal authority.

My point is this:  To question authority productively, to question authority wisely, we need to realize that to question something really means to seek an answer, and that ultimately authority is never really separate from us, it is us.

Let me come back to what I think this has to do with your time at Duke.  When I ask you to question authority, I’m not asking you to spend your next four years fundamentally changing the world (although I imagine some of you might get a start in that direction).  No, I simply want you to develop a healthy habit of knowing when and how to question authority, with the recognition that to question something is to seek understanding, and that the most important authority to learn how to question is yourself. 

Now that you’re in college, you have more authority than you’ve ever had before.  You’re in charge.  You can choose whatever classes you want to take, whatever academic credentials you want to earn, whatever path you want to pursue after you leave Duke.  We do ask you to follow some rules, but this is only a framework.  For example, there are over two thousand courses offered at Duke each semester – think of the choices you have! 

You also can choose what to do with your time when you’re not in class, what clubs to join, what foods to eat, when to go to bed, and when to wake up.  You can choose who you spend time with – and you can choose who you don’t spend time with.  Of course you’ve always had choice in these matters, but now that you’re at Duke, you have more choice than ever before – just look at the extraordinary diversity of the extraordinary people around you!  

And whether or not you engage these folks and their ideas in a deep and meaningful way is entirely up to you.

You could spend your next four years content with how you now see the world, pleased to stay in your comfort zone, happy with the way things are.  Or, if you follow my advice and use your time at Duke to learn how to question your own authority, you may find that your view of the world has shifted a bit, your understanding of your own goals has transformed, your vision of how you’ll live your life is not quite what you thought it was yesterday when you arrived. 

So you see, what I’m really asking you to do when I ask you to question authority is to use your time at Duke to better understand who you are.  If you can do that, if you can understand your own authority and how to question it, then you won’t need one of these Question Authority buttons, because then you’ll know how and when to question authority on anything that matters to you, wisely and effectively.

How will you know if you’re successful?  I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to that question.  But here’s a suggestion:  A few decades from now, you’re likely to unexpectedly run across some lost artifact of your time at Duke, just as I did a few weeks ago.  For me, it was finding my old “Question Authority” button.  Who knows what it will be for you?  But when this happens – and I’m sure it will someday – will you look back and ponder on the remarkable transformation that your time at Duke was for you?  If that happens, then we’ll both know you were successful.

Oh, and if sometime in the next four years you decide you need to question Duke’s authority on some issue and this leads you to come and stage a sit-in in my office, I guess I’ve asked for it.

Welcome to Duke!