Mingling Among the Millennials


Among the grand joys of being on the faculty at a place like Duke is having a front-row seat on this culture’s next act. We faculty grow old; students are forever young. We are on our way out; they are on their way up. Thus, when President Keohane asked me to “revisit” my 1993 report on student life at Duke, how could I refuse? It had been ages since I had partied with the Pikas, slept on the sofa of a sophomore, or engaged in a dormitory debate that ended only at dawn.
  My earlier report, made at the request of then-President Brodie, contributed to a minor revolution in student life at Duke and elsewhere. A book, with Duke economics professor Thomas Naylor (The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education) got me invitations to speak and consult on student-life issues at more than fifty colleges and universities. At Duke, we made a number of innovations in student life (a first-year East Campus, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, redesigned eating spaces, new recreational facilities, faculty associates for student residences). So how was a new generation of Duke students doing?
  When the latest report, “Old Duke–New Duke,” was issued, Durham’s Herald-Sun ran its predictable “They’re Talking About Alcohol at Duke–Again” headline. Despite what the students, or The Herald-Sun might think, our students’ use, and sometimes abuse, of alcohol is not what interests me most.
  One of the general characteristics of this generation of young adults is that they despise generalizations about their characteristics. Nevertheless, what impressed me most in my days and nights observing them last fall was the way that, since my last report, ethics has become the hot topic on campus. In the past few years, we have had growing debate on a subject that had become excluded from the life of too many campuses: What sort of human beings are being produced here?
  Curriculum 2000 in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences (the only major full-scale curriculum revision in an American research university in recent years) includes a two-course Ethical Inquiry requirement. The First-Year Writing Program has an ethical component guided through our Kenan Institute for Ethics, which has also made scores of campus grants for programs, research, and projects on moral deliberation and social responsibility. The Hart Leadership Program gives our students supervised, hands-on experience in civic engagement. Service-learning opportunities offer practical experience in civic virtue.
  We are learning in these initiatives that it is not enough to stress vague and allegedly universally agreeable “values.” We must decide what we value and what sort of lives we want. Alcohol abuse may not indicate a need for better enforcement of rules but rather for the development of better character. Yet we are finding that it is one thing to admit that we are in the character-formation business and quite another to assert which character is worth having. On campus, that debate is beginning.
  We recently had a wonderful evening in which, at the invitation of the Honor Council, Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas spoke on “Why Cheating Is Worse Than Murder at Duke.” Hauerwas asserted that, in an academic community like Duke, we can forgive murder but cheating is an attack upon our whole rationale for being here, an assault upon the trust that is necessary for collaboration among scholars. The nature of our academic community requires a peculiar ethic that arises out of who we are as a community and who we hope to be.
   We faculty place academic and intellectual demands upon our students, but we have been reluctant to hassle them about their behavior. We changed the title to Office of Student Development in order to recognize that we are busy moving our students, at a crucial point in their young lives, from one point to another. Duke has a higher vision for itself than that of the new “click university” along the Information Highway. We are called to more than merely the skillful administration of student desires. What we are about is the transformation of incredibly talented young people into better adults than they would be if they had not been here among us.
  The Honor Code is but one step, albeit a significant one, in the right direction. We must do more. Many of us faculty and administrators are children of the Sixties, whose undergraduate slogans were “Do your own thing,” “Never trust anyone over thirty,” and “Stay out of our lives.” We may therefore be reluctant to acknowledge that a new generation of students requires a new pedagogy. Our current generation of students—“latch-key kids” and children of divorce—yearns for more adult interaction, is engaged in a quest for community, parents, mentors, roots, and other identity-forming experiences they feel our generation has neglected.
  Duke was created to be more than a mere knowledge factory, or an expensive place for the retrieval of information. Information is a mere commodity; people are more than that. As students and faculty, we must never get beyond being a college, a collection of colleagues who have as a common good our mutual growth in erudition. At our worst, we have allowed the modern research university’s definition of itself to corrupt Duke’s more noble originating purposes of residential, liberal education of the young. Our great purpose is not the accumulation of knowledge but erudition, the development of character, the pioneering of those new forms of community for which our society yearns.
  The university is more than a place where people get their needs met or have their desires fulfilled—a Club Med for the young. We are a community that cultivates needs worth having and transforms our desires. We were meant to be a locus for transformation, a privileged place where talented young adults become considerably more interesting human beings than they would have been if they had been left to their own devices. Be well assured that we are transforming our students into something during their time here.
  At our worst, we merely affirm their tendency to be somewhat savvy consumers, or simply give them their ticket to power in a lucrative profession, a perversion of the term higher education. At our best, Duke is always attacking itself, forever criticizing itself, because it is that place where one generation tells another what it knows in order that the next generation may create a better world than the one in which we currently live. Here in this bucolic setting a revolution is taking place in which the best and the brightest are given what they need to lead a society with great resources and with large needs.
  After a few weekends on campus, I began to wonder if student-life administrators focus too much upon that minority of our students who abuse alcohol or otherwise misbehave. More effort ought to be spent in supporting that majority of students, perhaps growing in number, whose behavior is congruent with the noble purposes of higher education. Some of our students act in ways that are irresponsible and dangerous. Far more of them give thousands of hours of community service, celebrate exuberantly and creatively at parties and sports events, enjoy fraternities, make wondrous music, participate in the more than seventy campus Bible study groups, make friendships that will last a lifetime, and, in impressive ways, are beginning to make the world a better place than they found it.
   Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Clack and I are teaching a First-Year Student Seminar this semester on “Ethics, Meaning, and Morals.” We encourage students not just to consider a string of ethical dilemmas asking “What ought I to do?” but rather to engage the more difficult character question: “Who ought I to be?” And the students enter into the class with gusto. Clack and I are having the time of our academic lives.

Willimon, dean of the Chapel since 1984, is a professor of Christian ministry and the author of fifty books. Eight colleges and universities have awarded him honorary degrees, many for his work in higher-education reform.

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