Knowledge in the Service of Society

April 1, 2007

Knowledge in the Service of Society—a central theme of Duke’s newest strategic plan—was the topic of a half-day, four-panel conference in February at the Doris Duke Center. More than 150 students, faculty and staff members, and visitors explored themes such as how to translate the theory of service into practice, how service enhances rather than detracts from the generation of knowledge, and the relationship between civic engagement and campus culture.

President Richard H. Brodhead cited the importance of “an education [that] consists not just of doing your homework and getting good grades on the requisite exams.” Andrew Cunningham ’07 discussed his work on a project to build a girls’ school in Kenya, and former Kenan Institute of Ethics Director Elizabeth Kiss, now the president of Agnes Scott College, declared that “this is an area where Duke could show leadership among [top research] universities.”

Some panelists warned about the politicization of service or expressed concern that universities would feel compelled to link every type of learning to a service ethic. “You don’t want to point some ‘benevolometer’ at people, and if they don’t score in the top quintile of benevolence, say ‘We don’t want you at this university,’ ” Brodhead added.

Ruth Grant, a professor of political science, pointed out that the notion of “community service” has often been fused with progressive liberal causes: “I have asked myself for a long time why it’s considered ‘service’ when students work for local nonprofits, but when people work for Capitol Hill it’s called an ‘internship.’ ”

Following the symposium, more than 135 people celebrated the tenth anniversary of service-learning at Duke, as well as the retirement in March of Betsy Alden ’64, one of the architects of the university’s service-learning initiatives.

Over the past ten years, more than 5,000 students have combined their academic coursework with relevant service and critical ethical reflection.