The social life of the a Duke undergraduate (as seen in the press)

The Dallas Morning News recently published an editorial by Thomas Hibbs entitled “College Kids Get Brain, No Soul.” In the editorial, Hibbs references the exceedingly disturbing article in Rolling Stone called “Sex & Scandal at Duke.”

The Rolling Stone article discusses the social scene at Duke where “work hard, play hard” has always been a motto. According to the article, in recent years, the “work hard” portion has morphed into an obsessive desire to please faculty, working to produce high quality papers which will be accepted by professors in order to get good grades, graduate with honors and get a good job. The “play hard” portion of the motto has turned into an obsession with alcohol and casual sex, bleeding back into “working hard” to maintain the perfect body, social connections, etc.

Hibbs read the article and concludes that Duke (like other prestigious universities) is not doing its job in teaching students. That it teaches the mind, but not the soul and that this failing leads to the behavior describe by Rolling Stone. He concludes by saying that parents and students should be more selective in choosing schools and professors, selecting those that feed the soul as well as the mind. I am sure that his role as dean of the Honors College at Baylor is entirely coincidental.

Beyond the, admittedly minor, conflict of interest, Hibbs commits a logical fallacy by confusing cause and effect. He implies that Duke and other prestigious universities are failing students by either allowing or encouraging them to ignore their spiritual/emotional health. My personal belief is that the students who exhibit the behaviors described in the article are more likely to attend a school like Duke. I believe that these behaviors are characteristic of “generation Y” and that Duke and similar schools attract the cream of the crop of students (i.e., the most successful) who are most likely to exhibit the traits of their generation.

That’s a big claim to make without providing a bit of elaboration, so what exactly do I mean? The first thing to note is that the Rolling Stone article draws a very sweeping picture of Duke students, but in places notes that it is being descriptive of the “Top 500” or the most popular subset of the undergraduates out of a population of 6,500. I’ve known several Duke undergraduates and the article does not describe them at all. Instead, this is “the beautiful people.”

As the RS article makes clear, a driving factor in the students’ behavior is a desire for acceptance or approval. From what I’ve seen, this desire for acceptance is particularly strong in gen-Y. They desire to be accepted by peers (as do all teenagers), but they also seek acceptance by parents and teachers. This drive for parental and teacher acceptance easily turn into academic success, at least at the high school level. You regurgitate material, you don’t need to think for yourself about it, and you make your parents and teachers happy.

Students whom are strongly motivated by this type of acceptance are likely to perform best in schools. They may be likely to participate in many extracuricular activities (acceptance by peers and society) and are likely to study hard to ace their SATs (again to please their parents). All of this means that the student motivated by acceptance is more likely to get into a prestigious university. Once they get into the university environment, they find that the quest for acceptance leads to engaging in different behaviors of the kind described by Rolling Stone.

There may be things that universities can do to curb such destructive behavior, but my belief is that the root causes start at home, well before the students go to college.

1 Comment

  1. Luis said,

    August 29, 2006 @ 8:14 am

    Absolutely dead on. This all happens from day one on campus- it isn’t like freshmen come in pure and noble and leave corrupted. All the factors present in the article are already present in every competitive American high school, and sadly, to some extent in some middle schools, if my sister is to be believed.

    That said, Duke could help the situation, at least at Duke, by demoting the frats off main campus and incentivizing living groups whose culture is more balanced.

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