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A Talk to Undergraduates
Richard H. Brodhead
March 22, 2005

How preposterous would it be for the President of Duke to invite the undergraduate body in for a confidential chat? And if I summoned the nerve, what pretext could I cook up for this occasion? This being March, I could say that I wanted to welcome you back from spring break, having missed you—which is true. Or I could say that, fearing that the inspiring advice given you by the President on your first day at Duke has begun to wear off, I’ve asked you in for a booster vaccine—which is close to the truth but still a little oblique. Since my motive will soon be clear, I will confess it without benefit of coy disguise. My idea was to engage you in a dialogue on what you’re doing here—on your education and how it might work to best advantage. Happily, in this dialogue I get to do all the talking, at least at first.

If I think to raise this subject, it’s because it’s a bit of a wonder how rarely it is raised. In my experience, a thousand questions are asked more frequently in universities than the question of the education they mean to impart. The reason is easy enough to find. Before you enter a university, what is called higher education seems an attractive goal, but you lack experience to imagine what exactly it could consist of. After you arrive, life becomes a great, long To Do list of classes to go to, assignments to complete, people to meet, and things to do, leaving you much too busy to think what it’s all meant to add up to—or causing you to think that discharging these daily obligations is the same thing as reaching the goal.

But if the goal of college is seldom an object of direct reflection, there is also another reason, which is that the process of education is profoundly mysterious. Look at you. You who are seniors instinctively recognize freshmen as markedly other, unmistakably different in the evolution they have achieved. Freshmen, if the current you were to run into the version of you that arrived here last August, there would be a shock of recognition but also, I imagine, a blush. That was you alright, but a you so much less cool and mature.

You’ve changed at Duke, you’ve grown here. That blossoming and deepening is the fruit of your education. But if we ask how you came by it, the answer is obscure. We have required things of you in the name of your education, but none of us would be so foolish as to think that your growth came from the academic program alone. College is not like a carwash. We may have run you through a soapy application of writing skills, a vigorous brushing with modes of reasoning, a hot wax spray of major requirements, and a concluding blow-dry of research experience, but that is not what made you the shiny or brilliant person you are today.

You have become that improved or enriched self through the simultaneous action upon you of everything that has stimulated, challenged, tested, and delighted you in your time at Duke: your classes; your reading and thinking; your adventures in that manic parallel universe that we call extra-curricular; the strain of events in the national and international world; your friends, and all the silly things you’ve done with them, and all the discoveries you’ve helped each other to. Everything serious, everything frivolous, everything labeled intellectual, everything labeled social, all these things acting together in unanalyzable and inseparable combination made the rich medium in which the new you got its growth. But this has not happened through the action of environment alone. Education of the profound sort only takes place when something within us is ignited or excited. Only when an external stimulus activates some latent energy of selfhood that comes forth to engage it does it enter into and shape our emerging life.

Let me sum up: my life’s hard-won wisdom made yours in four sentences. College takes in the talented young at the moment of greatest openness to new stimuli and fastest rate of personal becoming. Working with this development, college’s goal is to help you create your most broadly thoughtful and capable self, the you maximally equipped to bring your talents to bear on your world. We do our part by creating a super-stimulating ecosystem that will elicit your responsiveness on multiple fronts. You do your part when you engage: when you invest these opportunities with your active life.

Now, I have not been in the land of the Dukies long, but I have had my chances to watch you. I have eavesdropped as you discussed film technique on buses and observed you writing papers on Taiwan as foreign policy challenge while sitting in chilly tents. (Only at Duke!) I have seen you dance, wrestle, analyze millennialist religious movements, and build Habitat houses. I’ve heard you sing like angels in the Duke Chapel choir and cheer like devils in the Cathedral of Hoops. I’ve seen you studying in the Duke Gardens undistracted by the impromptu concerts and surrounding stickball games others of you were carrying on.

Everywhere I turn on this campus I see energy triumphing over lethargy in a spirited mix of work and fun, with intensity enough to make things interesting and friendliness and good humor enough to keep things from growing frantic. From all this I conclude that undergraduate life at Duke in is robust good health, but we can always raise our sights. I want to comment on a couple of aspects of this place that seem to me particularly promising and enlist your help in thinking how to make it stronger still.

First as regards the academic side: In my conversations with you, one of the things students have repeatedly insisted is that "you can do absolutely anything here." I take this to mean two things: first, that there’s virtually no discipline or conjunction of disciplines (this latter a Duke specialty) that can’t be pursued here at the highest level; but second, that this is a school where you can personalize your education, build an academic program responsive to your interests and concerns. To this I would add that, given the opportunities available here, you have an obligation to avail yourselves of these rare chances. There may be schools where taking the same things that everybody else does and doing what They tell you you have to is an adequate guide to education. (I have my doubts, though. "I was just following orders" has never been such a good defense.) But here, where you have the chance to create your education through your active involvement, a strategy of passive obedience is a failure of imagination, leading to lost opportunities for growth.

The most valuable part of education involves what I have thought to call the transcendence of homework. It occurs in those moments when performing some intellectual task set for us by others touches off an unforeseen burst of interest, such that what was at first a chore becomes a living inquiry and what was at first required from without becomes driven by an internal compulsion, the force of our own intelligence and curiosity. You can’t make this happen by an act of will; but you can facilitate it by remembering to hold it as your ambition; and we can help.

Since I’ve arrived at Duke, I have taken delight in those places throughout the curriculum that make your creativity a primary ingredient of instruction. On a random walk into the Documentary Studies Center one Saturday I happened upon an exhibit of work from a photography class where the task was both to capture everyday life in some personally striking way and to try to articulate your work’s aesthetic, its peculiar logic of revelation and choice. This work could not have happened without a teacher; but the teacher’s work was to make you become the agent of your own education, with striking results. Of the many things that delight me in Duke Engineering my favorite must be the SMART House, the house where undergraduates use their inventiveness and problem-solving skills to devise and build new versions of all the systems a house requires—more environmentally friendly air handling systems, more efficient telecom systems, more ingenious entertainment systems, and so on. Here too your doing becomes the path to deeper learning—learning, among other things, the practical value of your own ideas.

Such projects extend well beyond the bounds of classes. I know of a student (a varsity athlete to boot) who is studying the fate of cross-ethnic communities through fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the classic sites of 1990s ethnic strife and ethnic cleansing, with Duke support. When I heard this, I thought, what a great educational opportunity! Great, because she was exploring one of the central dramas of our strife-torn world; but great too because she had defined her question and conducted the research herself. With help from The Duke Endowment, in the coming year we’re going to significantly increase the opportunities for undergraduates to pursue independent research with faculty guidance and Duke financial support. But remember: it takes your will and your curiosity, your investment of self, to turn this opportunity into the benefit it might be.

As these examples would suggest, something I’ve found wonderful and distinctive to the culture of this place are the opportunities Duke affords to carry academic inquiry into real world settings. These need not all be far afield. On the first school day of this year I visited primary schools that work with us in the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. The Partnership is an effort to bring Duke expertise to the needs of our surrounding community, and everywhere I went, I saw how much this citizenly effort relies on undergraduate volunteers. Two of the many Duke students I encountered were clearly beloved presences at the afterschool program at the West End Community Center a mile from the campus, and I was interested to know how it had happened. Here is what I learned. They had met in an Education course they had taken as freshmen, where they learned of the opportunity to intern in a summer camp for kids in under-resourced neighborhoods. They followed up on this hands-on experience by taking a research seminar in which they got to identify issues they had found concerning during the summer—issues like bullying and summer literacy loss—and study what scholars had learned about these problems and how they could be effectively addressed. Later, in another summer placement, they had a chance to take their book learning and test it in practice.

The sense that the gifts we enjoy give us an obligation to the service of others is not a Duke monopoly, though here that sense is unusually strong. What I find so Dukish about this story is the degree of complementarity these students achieved between their academic studies and experience in the world. What they learned in classes enabled them to participate more intelligently and constructively in a real-world situation, which in turn gave reality to what might have been bookish abstractions.

I’ve seen this mutual enablement of classroom and real-world elements in many aspects of Duke education. This year I’ve watched two plays that had their theatrical gestation at Duke: the musical of Little Women, now in the middle of a run on Broadway, and the Purgatorio of our own professor Ariel Dorfman, which will no doubt follow his earlier works onto stages across the globe. Besides the joy of being somewhere where the act of creation is taking place around you, these plays gave me the pleasure of knowing that Duke students had been included as interns in the process of creation—with theater coursework feeding into actual experience onstage that in turn will make further academic study dramatically more real. When I asked some undergraduates to dinner at my house with Paul Farmer, the great doctor-minister to the poor of the developing world, I learned that they virtually all had experience in global health projects in third world settings, in Cuba, in India, in Africa—experience that gave new point to their work in Duke health policy seminars and science labs.

It’s my intention to make these chances to connect academic inquiry with real-world practice and service even more numerous at Duke and to put these opportunities in plain sight for every student. Dean Robert Thompson and his staff have taken up my invitation to create a website listing all such offerings and explaining how to access them. And as new Duke programs come into existence, for instance the ambitious global health program we’re now envisioning, I’ll look to make sure they afford plentiful openings for undergraduates. It’s my dream that Duke could become known for producing a special and highly desirable kind of student (you!), a person of trained intelligence highly knowledgeable about the world and with a strong desire to use their intelligence to solve the world’s problems. But I repeat: you won’t get this benefit without seeking it—without investing yourself in the opportunities Duke affords you.

Another way Duke can score the larger world into your experience is through the flow of interesting people who pass through here each week. I’ve rejoiced in the range of talent and experience that has visited this campus this year and in the wonderfully eclectic—not to say totally random—mix of education they have supplied. (The comedian David Sedaris and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg? It’s a marriage made in heaven.) And it’s not just the famous whose visits we should court. One of the problems of being in college is how hard it is to learn what there is to do in the world beyond the most obvious careers. But as I continue to learn, recent Dukies—you with five or ten more years of experience—are found in absolutely every interesting line of work. I was very grateful to Sheila Curran and her staff for arranging the Career Week that connected almost two thousand current students with nearly two hundred alums returning from the outside—corporate executives, teachers, small business owners, film animators, state legislators, and everything else under the sun. (And I certainly did enjoy taping your wake-up call.) This was a great way for you to learn what people actually do all day—and how people found the paths toward the use of their gifts.

The conflicts of our time have not spared us their visits to this campus; nor should we have wished them to, if we want this to be a place of education. As you know, Duke did not initiate the Palestinian Solidarity conference that was held on campus last October nor did Duke endorse the point of view of its speakers. But the university’s decision to allow it to be held here did make a point: that the right to free speech is unlikely to have much reality if we don’t ourselves uphold it under stress, and that education is better served by countering others’ speech with better arguments than by suppressing those with whom we disagree. Though not of one mind about the political issues involved, this campus was magnificent in its recognition of the principles of a free society and our responsibility to turn controversy into education. The visitors who have enriched my own education this year have included, in this month alone, the chief U.S. participant in Middle Eastern peace negotiations in the first Bush and the whole Clinton presidencies, Ambassador Dennis Ross; also the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ayalon; also, extraordinarily movingly, the father of the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and executed in Pakistan, Judea Pearl and the Islamic scholar with whom he holds dialogues on reconciliation, Akbar Ahmed.

But Duke students did not wait for the administration to invite such speakers. All this year, students took the initiative to bring people to campus to enrich our understanding of what is at stake in that conflict-ravaged region. Such students learned the best of lessons—their ability to be the active shapers of the learning this place affords. I see parallel value in a recent initiative to bring speakers to Duke on public controversies in this country. Its ringleaders include student Democrats and student Republicans—perhaps only at Duke do such people talk to each other—and their idea is for all parties to hear multiple sides of current debates. In a country where so much "debate" consists of cheering on those we already agree with, this idea has much to recommend it. (I remind you of the saying of the poet Blake: "Without contraries is no progression.") But my special pleasure was that this venture was initiated out of student brains.

I’ll be enlarging the support for bringing interesting people to campus, but in doing so, it’s your involvement that I want to foster. My idea is that all such speakers should be available to engage with students in small groups, and that as many of you as possible would participate in dreaming up interesting programs.

Since I have rattled on so long, I have time only for one more topic, and it’s this. Your life together is a crucial feature of this place. It’s essential to the fun of college, a value I by no means underestimate; and it’s important too for your education, since so much of the stimulation of a school like this comes from the sparks you strike from each other.

Now, many students (not all) have told me that the student community hangs together extremely well in the early undergraduate years but falls apart somewhat thereafter, with housing paths unclear for seniors and juniors returning from abroad. By great good fortune, this problem coincides with a historic opportunity, our need to rebuild virtually the entire Central Campus. The trick of rebuilding Central will not be to throw up new buildings. It will be, through new building, to solve old problems and create new realities in the Duke experience. I am visualizing the rebuilt Central as a chance to pull the student community back together toward the end of your undergraduate career in housing that will reflect the growth you’ve achieved here, something less like dorms and closer to the adult living you’ll be moving on to: something with significantly more privacy and independence, with amenities appropriate to the age you have attained. If we can build what we have in mind, no other university will have anything quite like it. But the main news I want to share is that you have the chance to help invent this future - even if, like Moses and the Promised Land, not all of you will live to inhabit it. Students are already present on our planning committees, and I hope to enlist many more of you in envisioning the best possible thing we could build.

I’ve run on longer than I intended, and in two seconds I’ll take your questions, comments, criticisms, and retorts. I’ll end with this. Every day is a new day. Every day it’s freshly in your power to think of the use you’re making of this place and decide to engage its opportunities more aggressively and imaginatively. Those events that always sound interesting but that you never actually show up for? Next time you could make the effort, with potentially dramatic results. That tight circle of friends who are so endearing but after awhile a little constricting? They could still be your friends if you opened yourself to some new human specimens, to share new-found concerns. Those classes you are about to choose and summer plans you are about to lay? You might find something inspiring if you took some trouble and avoided the setting marked default. The saying is truer than you realize: you can do absolutely anything here—anyway, close enough. The real limit to what you make of Duke will always lie in the inertia of contented habits, your willingness to keep things pretty much the way you’ve got them. Show a little courage and you’ll find that this place rewards the active seeker. I want Duke to be your school: not just the school you attended but the one you helped create.

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