This Is Not High School

October 1, 2006
Meeting and greeting: following convocation, President Richard Brodhead and his wife, Cynthia Brodhead, greet students

Meeting and greeting: following convocation, President Richard Brodhead and his wife, Cynthia Brodhead, greet students. Megan Morr

Men and women of the Class of 2010--the Double Dimes, as my Internet spies tell me you have dubbed yourselves: If this day is harsh for others, it's great for you. Today you are promoted. You are the premier attraction here, the person it's all about. This summer I've run into a number of you as you whiled away the days waiting for school to start. I met future Dukies in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, in Korea, and in Beijing. I spent an evening with seventy or eighty of you from the slightly less distant Durham and Wake counties. I've greeted many of you as you tromped off on pre-orientation trips to the woods, or to the ocean (welcome back, Pirates of the Carolinas), or to do good works in Durham. On all the migratory routes that brought you here, I've seen one thing in your faces: pride that you are about to enroll in one of the world's great universities; a look of shining promise and eager anticipation; a sense that some great thing is about to begin.

Some great thing is about to begin. But what, exactly? In coming to college you're traveling through a great transition. What's on the other side of that transition is, or could be, a great transformation. I don't exaggerate. The chapters of childhood are now behind you. This is where your adult self will take strength and disclose its shape. You've done a lot of development and preparation. Now you can forge the knowledgeable, capable self you'll carry forward into later life. Your larva or creepy stage is past; your pupa or cocooned days are done. Now it's time to emerge in splendid maturity--and Duke is here to help realize the empowered version of yourself.

If you have any lesser idea of what's in store for you in college, then you're underestimating the meaning of this day. But unlike moths and butterflies, this transformation is not guaranteed by the action of genetic switches. The main fact about the possibility that's now before you is that to be actualized, it requires you to want it and actively to seek it. What Duke could give you won't be impeded by any lack of ability on your part: Having chosen you over many thousand others, we know you have the requisite strength and promise. You also won't be hindered by lack of opportunity: You'll search a long time before you find the thing you can't do at Duke. But what could diminish the value of your years here is your failure to reach for the self-enlargement that could await you, and your clinging to ways you're now free to outgrow.

You are women and men who made exceptional use of the opportunities of high school. But unless the world has changed a great deal, even the best experience in high school tends to come framed with certain habits and limits. In high school, standard subjects tend to be laid out for you year by year in fixed array, as by the action of fate. Students often think of their work with these subjects as a chore or job (as in: "I have to do my physics"), a tedious task to be whipped through as fast as you can, so you can move on to something more engaging. Even when you did achieve academic excellence, there was usually an ancillary motive propelling that drive. For one great fact presided over your school life these past two or three (or twelve or thirteen) years: namely, the fact that you needed to get into college. This meant that every good thing you did had some admixture of the desire to create an impression, to make you look outstanding so some admissions officer would think you were the kind of superior person they were hunting for and let you in.

Clever you! It worked! And one great life trial is now definitively behind you: You will never need to get into college again. But you won't get either the pleasure or the profit of this new opportunity if you take that same old approach. Your new life will have appearances that seem continuous with your old one--a schedule of classes, course assignments, all the familiar forms of school--but college has a crucial difference. It expects a new attitude, requires you to find a way to engage the objects of study with an authentic personal interest, not as an externally appointed task. As for the voices telling you that it's still your primary mission to Do Well, they are not totally wrong. I too wish you to continue to succeed, and it is not my plan to render you unemployable. But take it from me: The people who go on to the greatest success aren't those with showy transcripts only. They are people who are able to convince others--convince them because it's true!--that they have an active, creative intelligence living within them, taking in the facts around them and converting them into a continually growing, continually deepening knowledge of the world.

Now's your chance to build this power. So please, take seriously your new chances to advance your mental growth. You live at the historical moment when the meaning of the human genome is being unraveled. You've come to a school that's leading the way, not just in decoding genetic information but in discovering how that knowledge can lead to therapies to save and improve the quality of lives. So which makes better sense: learning something about this while you're at Duke and expanding your growing body of understanding? Or perpetuating your ignorance in the place of possible illumination?

Much of the international news in recent months has to do with Muslim peoples and radical Islamic fundamentalism, which threatens to supply the world-organizing external menace for your generation that Communism embodied in the Cold War. You in your wisdom have come to a university that's building a new Islamic Studies Center. Is it absurd to think that you might actually try to learn something about Islam while you're at Duke and so avoid passing through life armed with ignorant attitudes in place of informed understandings?

When I was in China this summer, I learned that in the last decade, more than a hundred million people had moved from the countryside to the new cities thrown up by the expanding global economy, the largest peacetime movement of humanity in the whole of history. In Beijing I also learned that Duke faculty members are known to be among the most acute students of this transformation and the developments and dislocations it entails. You'll live at a time when no dimension of the world economy or political order will be immune from these evolving stories overseas. So would you choose to miss this chance to learn about contemporary China or the sustainability of economic development or the blend of creations and dislocations that globalization entails? These (and a hundred others) are Duke strengths that could now become your strengths--if you take the initiative to acquire them.

Once you start composing your life as an active seeker of understanding rather than the duteous performer of appointed chores, the boundary between formal course work and the rest of your Duke experience will be less sharply drawn. The hundred talks you'll see advertised every day will be a further chance to test and expand your mind. Provost Peter Lange is organizing a lecture series this year on privacy. You know why this is an issue. In the high-tech world, previously concealable information like cell-phone calls and global financial transfers can be tracked in hitherto unimaginable detail. But to what extent is this a vital defense against terrorist conspiracies, to what extent a dangerous incursion on vital civil liberties? And how are the right boundaries and protections to be established?

Nearer to home, you have probably learned that all that Internet sharing that you and your classmates had so much fun doing this summer opens the door to unexpected revelations about you in contexts not originally intended. (I hope this is not a shocking surprise! Personally, I have not peeked.) But how are we to define the protocols that will give us the new benefits of information-sharing without creating new forms of intrusion and victimization?

These are questions that will be settled in your adult life, and it is hugely consequential that our society get them right. If you're like me, you're far from certain of the correct answers now. But you could advance your thinking, and even equip yourself to become a player in the ongoing debate, if you went to hear and argue with the former heads of national security, devisers of Internet sharing sites, and others who will be parading through here for your personal edification. This is a form of education Duke could give you every day--but you have to seize it to win its gains.

It's also part of the distinctive character of Duke that it offers rich access to real-world experience that can help you test and amplify classroom learning and put it to human use. You "have to" take a foreign language at Duke, it's true. But which would have a better payoff: to do just as much as you "have to" and call it a day? Or to take your Spanish to the Durham public schools that are experiencing a massive influx of Latinos, where you could get real-world practice using your language, perform a real-world service to people new to a very foreign land, and learn something beyond frozen political slogans about contemporary American immigration? Students in the Pratt School "have to" learn all sorts of things to master the disciplines of engineering. But you'll also learn the power that knowledge gives if, like students I know, you bring classroom knowledge to bear on the challenge of designing prosthetic devices for disabled children or assisting victims of natural disasters, like the students of Duke's Engineers Without Borders.

I'm pounding on you and you may already be converted, but I don't want one of you to miss my point. You're about to start a new life here. As you do so, you need to know that there are choices about how you could put that life together, and that some choices will yield a far richer experience than others. If you want to hang a Do Not Disturb sign over your brain--or if, like cabs I'm always hailing in New York, you plan to turn on your mind's Off Duty sign whenever you finish your required tasks--that would be one choice. But it's not the one that will make life most interesting here day by day; and it's not the one that does long-term justice to your talents and potentials.

When I think about the resources here for you, high on my list are your fellows, the women and men sitting here today. With every one of you I've met, I've thought: Lucky classmates to have you in their midst! You apparently share this view, since even before arriving, you've been filling cyberspace with your fast-evolving friendships. So far so good. But here I remember something else about high school, which can be a place of friendship, but of other facts as well. Those years can be a time of painful self-consciousness and perceived vulnerability, with all the demoralizing things they spawn: desperate anxiety to be found acceptable; pressure to do things to win acceptance that one would never have chosen on one's own; mutual enforcement of highly reductive identities based on a few salient social traits (X is cool, Y is dorky, X is a jock, Y is a wimp--I doubt the current vocabulary is any more humane); a profound if invisible hierarchy defining who you should mix with, who you should not be caught dead with, and so on.

On the day you enter Duke, you come to the blessed moment when you can outgrow such things, step out of them and leave them with the castoffs of your immaturity. However you've been defined heretofore, here you can entertain a fuller, freer version of yourself. And together, you can construct a new community that will be at once more mutually liberating and more humanly interesting--unless you are so benighted as to wish to make college a second high school, and to re-erect that social prison just when you are free to escape.

It matters which route you choose to take. It matters to the experience you're opening or closing for yourself, and it matters to the world. We all know what a fractured, stratified world looks like extended into the world at large. Abroad, it gives us the ethnic division and organized ethnic hostility much too familiar in our time. Closer to home, it gives us America's still imperfectly transcended history of racial division, a problem it's still all of our work to solve and, more largely, the residential separations into enclaves of homogeneity that define so much American life. This, in spite of the fact that such divisions are socially impoverishing to all their parties, and that the most valuable human creations have always come through collaborations across lines of division. You may not know that, in the depth of the Depression and the heyday of official segregation in the United States, Duke's West Campus had as its principal designer a black architect, Julian Abele, who helped create this place in spite of the fact that he couldn't be seen on campus doing so.

Over against the divisive tendencies of the outer world, it is the nature of universities to bring people together, as Duke has brought together the Class of 2010: men and women of high promise drawn from every origin and background, from forty-six states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, forty-one countries, and a whopping 1,094 secondary schools. Now you'll be free to shape a new society. As you do so, you have a choice: Are you going to recreate a system of repressive identities and exclusions, or are you going to build a better world of interaction, cooperation, and mutual support?

I'm betting your answer is Option B, and I applaud you for it. But it's going to take actual choices from you day by day to make this happen. To make this better world, you'll need to practice the arts of human respect. What would that mean exactly? Stopping to recognize that each other person is as fully human as you and requires as much consideration as you would want in his or her place. Taking care not to treat anyone boorishly or coercively or offensively. Not blocking others out or writing them off based on superficial judgment. Having the curiosity to wonder what things look like from their point of view, and being willing to listen in order to find out.

Respect will get us to civility, a value vastly underrated in contemporary culture. But you came here for education, and that will require something beyond the chilly-sounding habit of respect. That will require active mutual engagement: the willingness to reach outside the circle you're comfortable with; the willingness to cross over into others' mental space and open yourself to their different outlooks and experiences; and the willingness to see how your own ideas might need to be extended or revised to accommodate the human lessons others give. If friction sometimes results from this engagement, well, why shouldn't it? We haven't asked you to transcend your humanity, just to get an education. And that requires that, in the presence of difference, you be willing patiently to teach those who don't yet understand where you are, not write them off as hopeless or unforgivable; and patiently to learn when the needy one is yourself.

Engagement will take you past civility to mutual enrichment, which is a big gain. But from there you need to take the further step to collaboration and learn to mesh your separate talents to enact the good things none of you can accomplish on your own. This valuable skill is practiced here wherever you look. You'll see it in the fun that's so plentiful at Duke: in the dance or improv comedy or intramural, club, or varsity sports or (dare I say) ritual cheering at basketball that are such exhilarating features of Duke communal life. You'll see collaboration in the service activities that are so powerful here--the important work students do in local literacy projects, for instance, or disaster relief further afield. And we count on your collaboration when there are serious issues for this community to face.

As you know, Duke was visited by a great trouble last spring. The resulting legal accusations remain unresolved, and we pray that they will be resolved in speedy, fair, and decisive fashion. But in addition to the contested legal charges, larger questions were raised about responsible student behavior and the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Not one of these questions is unique to Duke, but we are not free to ignore them. In working them through, in discovering how an animated, high-spirited world can be made compatible with the requirements of responsibility and respect, we'll be counting on your partnership--the best exercise of your thoughtful intelligence. If you get some experience here collectively imagining how to define and implement a good society, you'll have learned a form of intelligence of incalculable value for later life. In addition, you'll have helped make this great university better yet.

My friends, I've been speaking as if your future fate hangs in the balance, depending on how you approach this place. And I do believe there's a great and a merely good way you could go to Duke--and I do believe that getting the choice right is largely in your hands. But though I've enjoyed the chance to lay a sermon on you from this great pulpit, I'm not all that anxious about your souls. My guess is that you came here intending to make magnificent use of Duke, and it's your own best aspirations I've been voicing as I speak. Just remember them when life gets hectic. When a weight of custom threatens to dull your first hopes, recall what the berobed man in the dazzling necklace told you in Duke Chapel when you were starting out. This is your place. Help yourself to its riches. Come here with the intention of being transformed. I welcome you to Duke.