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Know Thy Selfie: Nowicki Tells the Class of 2020 to Immerse Themselves in the Duke Experience

Steve Nowicki at convocation
Dean Steve Nowicki: "So here you are, Class of 2020, about to enter the educational equivalent of the Louvre."

My wife Susan and I had the great good fortune to spend time at the Louvre museum in Paris this summer, a place we’d never been.  And what a place it is!  Originally built in the 12th century as a fortress, it was expanded and made ever more luxurious over time, eventually becoming the palace of French kings.  After the French Revolution – when those kings were given the boot – this magnificent palace became home to France’s most treasured works of art.  Now, the Louvre has become one of the most celebrated art museums in the world, with over 35,000 objects on display at any one time, visited by almost ten million people a year.  This year, Susan and I were two of those ten million.

I’m not an art historian nor am I an art critic, but to be immersed in an ocean of human creativity like this can transform you.  I’ve had the pleasure of such transformative experiences in museums large and small all over the world, such as the Shanghai Museum in China, the Louisiana in Denmark, the British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York to name just a few – and indeed, right here at Duke at the Nasher Museum. To envelop one’s self through art in the genius and ideas of other people – of other cultures, of other times, of other ways of thinking – is both a privilege and a gift.  It’s a way to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human, and of what we all share in common, regardless of where we come from, what language we speak, how we worship, or what we look like.

So here you are, Class of 2020, about to enter the educational equivalent of the Louvre.  Duke is one of the great universities of the world, just as the Louvre is one of the world’s great museums.  And, of course, what we offer is not just a dazzling array of art (although I do recommend the Nasher), but an even more dazzling array of opportunities to experience new things and new ideas, experiences that will – each in their own way – deepen your understanding of what it means to be human, of what we all share in common, regardless of where we come from, what language we speak, how we worship, or what we look like.  At its core, that’s the fundamental point of the education we offer at Duke.

But this brings to mind something about the time Susan and I spent at the Louvre this past summer, something I found disconcerting.  I didn’t notice at first, because we were so absorbed in the art.  But as we were admiring the famous statue of Venus de Milo – considered to be an epitome of Greek sculpture – I happened to see first one, then two, then another, and then what seemed like an unending stream of our fellow museum-goers do this:  They’d walk up quickly and snap a photo of the statue on their cell phone, then face away and snap a selfie with the statue in the background, and then just as quickly they’d be gone.  Person after person did this, as though it were some sort of planned choreography -- rush up, snap a pic, spin, snap a selfie, then rush off.  I wondered for a moment if this was leading up to some sort of flash mob event put on by local performance artists.

But no, there was no flash mob.  These were just folks visiting the museum.

Then I realized it wasn’t just at the Venus de Milo where this was happening.  At painting after painting, at statue after statue, the same thing occurred.  Rush up, snap a picture, spin, snap a selfie, rush off.

What I found disconcerting was this:  The people who were rushing through this way didn’t seem to be paying any attention to the art itself.  It was more like they were in a race to collect pictures for their own sake.  They were simply snapping pictures as quickly as they could without seeming to actually look at what it was they had just taken a picture of.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m OK with selfies.  In fact, I know you look great in your own selfies, the ones you’ve been posting all over social media since you were admitted to “#Duke2020.”  (Oh, and, Noah – thanks for sending me a copy of the selfie we took together at pSearch last week …)

Sociologists and cultural anthropologists tell us that selfies aren’t anything new, just a contemporary means of documenting important occasions and proud achievements, something we humans have been doing in various ways since the dawn of cave paintings.  Documenting things, one way or the other, is how we recount our experiences. And it’s those experiences that help to define us.

By documenting and recollecting our experiences, we’re sort of telling a story about ourselves, a story that helps others to understand us, to understand who we are, how we think, what we feel, why we’re interesting.    

So here you are on the threshold of your time at Duke, on the verge of a collection of experiences you’ll have over the next four years that’ll become a very big part of your own story.  You’ll find many such experiences in the classes you take, experiences that will deepen your thinking and hone your interests.  And of course that’s not the whole of it.  You’ll also encounter a ton of life-shaping experiences outside the classroom, perhaps while participating in a program like DukeEngage or Bass Connections, maybe while competing in a sport or performing in a dance ensemble, or perhaps just in some unplanned conversation you have with a friend.  All of these experiences will be part of your Duke education, and they’ll surely be an important part of your own life story. 

Walking into the Louvre for the first time, Susan and I were thrilled at the prospect of being immersed for hours in such a treasure trove of human ideas, achievement, and creativity.  Walking into Duke for the first time, as you are now, you have the opportunity to be immersed for years in a vastly greater wealth of ideas, achievement, and creativity.

This leads me back, however, to those people taking selfies at the Louvre.  Because they were focused on recording the fact that they were there, they were missing out on truly being there.  The folks rushing from artwork to artwork, stopping only long enough to snap a picture, were so fixated on documenting their time in the Louvre that they denied themselves the actual experience of all that magnificent art.

I doubt the idea of taking pictures of the art for its own sake was what was motivating these people.  If all they wanted was pictures, they could have bought the museum’s catalog – the pictures would be better and the price cheaper than the cost of admission.   Rather, I think they were driven by a desire to maximize how much they could claim they looked at, to expand whatever story they might tell about themselves and their visit to the Louvre.  No time to linger at any one piece, because that would get in the way of seeing as many as possible!  Maybe this is understandable.  If these folks thought they’d never have the occasion to visit the Louvre again, they might have wanted to take in every last bit while they had the chance.  But of course, having pictures to show how much they looked at doesn’t mean that they could claim to have really seen those pieces in any deeper sense of that word.

I don’t know if any of the people we saw snapping high-speed selfies in the Louvre will have the chance to visit that museum again.  Perhaps if they do, they’ll slow down the second time around, having realized that they weren’t truly there the first time.

I do know, however, that you will only go to college once.

And, you’ve chosen to come to Duke, a place that offers more than you could possibly experience during your time here.  There are literally thousands of different classes you could take each semester, dozens and dozens of subjects you could major in, hundreds of clubs you could join, and countless opportunities for you to get involved in all kinds of programs to pursue your interests.   On top of all this, there is the extraordinary wealth of the people you can meet at Duke.  Just look at yourselves, Class of 2020 – I see 1,700 really interesting people sitting in front of me right now.  I’m sure there’s not one of you I couldn’t learn something from, and I’d wager there’s not one of you who couldn’t learn at least one thing from every other person here. 

Everything and everyone you experience at Duke could become a meaningful part of your Duke story, and of your life story – if you let that happen…

The challenge is this:  You’ll be tempted to want to do it all, but of course you can’t.  And your understandable urge to try to do it all might lead you to touch too lightly on some things you come across here at Duke, without allowing yourself to truly experience them, just as selfie-takers in the Louvre rushed past fabulous works of art without truly seeing them. 

Of course, it’s not really selfies I’m talking about now – you’ll take a boatload of selfies over the next four years and that’s great.  No, the equivalent at Duke of the selfies I saw being taken at the Louvre would look something like this:  Taking a class not because you’re interested in it, but because it’s an easy way to satisfy a requirement.  Or avoiding a class on a subject you think might be interesting, because you think it’ll be too hard and bring down your GPA.  Joining an organization because you think it’ll look good on your résumé, but never participating in a meaningful way.  Or joining so many clubs and organizations that you can’t focus on any one of them.  Participating in academic or co-curricular programs without asking how they might contribute to your Duke education, but instead only to check them off some bucket list.  Having hundreds of “friends” on social media, but not finding time to sit down and have a real conversation with those friends over dinner.

I’m sure there’s not one of you who wants to go through Duke in this shallow way, lest the story you’ll someday tell of your time here turns out to be as incomplete as the story those selfie-takers could tell about their visit to the Louvre.  You know you’ll have to make choices, to avoid the trap of doing so much that you fail to deeply experience whatever it is you do.

But how do you make those choices?  Here’s the simple answer I suggest:  Ask yourself, at every turn, what matters to you? What really matters most to you? 

All of you have things that matter to you.  These are the things that brought you to college, these are things that brought you to Duke.  These are your hopes, your aspirations, your dreams. 

What matters to you may change over the next four years, in fact it probably will.  You’ll certainly gain a deeper understanding of what you care about now, and perhaps you’ll find new things that begin to matter to you even more.  But when you make choices – and you will have to make choices – about things as specific as what class to take or what club to join, or about things as big as what you’ll do with your Duke education – a good way to find the answer is to ask yourself, how does this square with what matters to me? 

Here’s the thing: If you cultivate the habit of always asking yourself, what does matter to me and why does it matter, you’ll have no difficulty answering questions like, why do I want to take this class versus that class?  Why do I want to be a member of this group and not that group?  Why do I want hang out with this friend and instead of that one?  Why do I believe this and not that?

If you always ask yourself what matters most to you and why it matters, then there’ll be no danger of you ever finding yourself so occupied with documenting of the story of your life that you neglect to actually live that life.  Your selfies, real and metaphorical, will always be authentic – you won’t just be in the foreground of a picture of something else you hardly experienced, you will be an essential part of any picture you find yourself in.

I began by recounting the experience my wife Susan and I had this past summer with the Venus de Milo at the Louvre.  Let me end with another classic of Greek antiquity, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.  A few hundred years before the Venus de Milo was sculpted, an unknown stone mason carved into the forecourt of this temple what is probably the best-known maxim of Greek philosophy – “Know thyself.”  These are good words to live by, and have been for the past two and a half thousand years. 

So perhaps all I’m really saying to you is this – “Know thy selfie.”   Welcome to Duke.

Click here to watch the full ceremony and read the speech by President Richard H. Brodhead.