In the student life arena, there's one thing that's inevitable: Even seemingly fresh issues are, more likely than not, long-enduring. And something else: The particular issue of intellectual engagement (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) is enduringly a source of angst for an intellectual community like Duke.
Already in this new academic year, a Duke Student Government “Intellectual Climate Committee” has reported on a large-scale survey of Duke students. According to the Chronicle’s reporting, 84 percent of respondents said they were moderately or very satisfied with their intellectual experiences in the classroom. But just 66 percent were similarly satisfied with their intellectual experiences outside the classroom. And, probably not surprisingly, only 40 percent were moderately or very satisfied with the availability of intellectual outlets during that class-free space known as the weekend. Committee chair Amanda Peralta, a senior, noted that faculty members have no incentive “to really interact with undergraduates on a deeper level.”
The Chronicle pounced on the report, especially in its staff editorials. As one editorial put it, “The committee’s basic finding—that intellectual engagement outside of the classroom is not as robust as it could be—exposes a serious problem in undergraduate social life.… Given the importance of a healthy intellectual climate to the central mission of higher education, the committee’s findings are disturbing, if not wholly unexpected.”
A second editorial quickly followed, arguing, as the headline put it, that “Empty credentials stifle intellectualism.” The editorial referred to “pressure to rack up activities and honors as we march through college, even it if means sacrificing genuine learning.” It urged the administration “to rethink the GPA and Latin honors systems,” and recommended the creation of “a student committee to determine how well conventional credentials align with aptitude.” Naturally.
So what might a veteran of Duke make of all this intellectualism-oriented conversation? That it’s healthy, to be sure, but also that it’s rather familiar. Specifically, back in March-April 1994, Duke Magazine ran a story (by this writer) called “Work Hard, Play Hard, Argue Hard.”
As it happens, the story quoted two players on the Duke scene who are even bigger players these days. One was Steve Nowicki, then an assistant professor of zoology and neurobiology and now vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. Nowicki, while quick to peg Duke students as extraordinarily bright, expressed concern that they wouldn’t necessarily “take outside class the intellectual spark that I try to ignite in class.”
The other voice was classical studies professor Peter Burian, now dean of the humanities. Back then, he was chairing an Academic Council task force exploring “the goals of an intellectual community and objectives for the intellectual life to which such a community might aspire.” Burian wanted to send a basic message to students: Work need not be unremittingly grinding, and a classroom discussion or a library discovery or a paper assignment can be as transporting as a swish through a basketball hoop.
In that 1994 story, Burian said an academic community “could study this forever.” Tellingly, he added, “And it probably should.”
No doubt it will.