My company recruits in the fall, and I typically get to spend some time traveling to schools or meeting recruits in their senior years at top-notch east coast academic institutions. As part of the recruiting schtick, I tell them that I graduated from Duke with a mechanical engineering degree to illustrate that, at our company, we’re not really looking for people with any particular background in finance or energy, but instead we want people who are good with numbers and like to solve problems. Frequently, people will ask me how I enjoyed Duke or what I think of it. That’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
I’m a firm believer that, in the end, it’s the people who you go to school with (or work with — another part of my schtick) that ultimately shape your experience, and that at any sizable institution you’ll be able to find a niche and connect with people who share similar values and facilitate whatever personal growth you seek. Whether you’re at a 60,000 person state school looking to spend your evenings expanding the horizons of homemade wearable tech or at an Ivy hoping to spend weekends smoking pot and like, really finding yourself, man, you can find people to do it with, and you and they will determine the quality of your educational experience. Duke was certainly no exception, and my friends from Duke are some of the smartest, most self-aware, humble, and all around best people that I know.
However, my experience with the general culture and population of the university was different. While there were at least as many decent people minding their own business on campus, the group of students subscribing to the “work hard, play hard” ethos was the loudest and most visible subculture; although only ~35% of students at Duke are involved in Greek life*, the social structure revolved around the typically awful parties and events thrown in their “dormitory sections” (which is where the fraternities are housed, rather than in houses) or at the hilariously awful local club, Shooters II. It frequently seemed like the only options on a Friday night were to go into some dormitory common room with a sticky floor and cardboard covering the lights, with the sweet, bready smell of stale beer permeating the residence halls as people held boring conversations with red solo cups in the rooms of the section, or to venture out to Shooters and try to grind on a stranger (that stranger would of course end up doing much better than me on our econ test that Monday). Needless to say, this was not my jam.
The fact that I didn’t enjoy the particular social scene isn’t so much a reflection on Duke as it is a reflection on me; I’m relatively awkward, and I’m terrible at having a good time. What really soured my perception of the institution was the pervasive culture of elitism. Those section parties I mentioned earlier? They get cleaned up by the cleaning staff the next day, who before 8 AM have to come in and scrub the beer-covered walls and mop the floors and throw away the empty cases and cans of crappy beer that a bunch of thankless 20 year olds sleeping off their revelry from the night before left for them to deal with. This sort of elitism isn’t limited to the selfish acts of a few kids, it’s widespread in the institution. The Great Coach K actually gave a speech before a game against UNC that can be summed up as, “You’re better than people because you go to Duke.” Not, “Our basketball team is going to win,” or even, “Our basketball team is better than other basketball teams,” but “Other people are inferior to you.” Who says that — and more to the point, who cheers for it? Duke students do.
While certainly a minority, the number of people who went to Duke because it was the best school they got into — but not the best school they applied to — was high enough that the Ivy chip on their shoulder contributed to a defensive sense of elitism perhaps best exemplified with the pervasive “D-U-K-E” / “DDMF” … chant… thing … that freshmen learn on their first drunken bus ride back from west campus. The funny truth is, Duke really isn’t that special as an academic institution. Sure, it’s consistently ranked as a top-ten undergraduate institution, but those rankings are based on highly biased criteria like peer perceptions, admissions selectivity, and alumni giving, rather than any measured academic value. Meanwhile, not a single non-professional graduate program ranks in the top nine (we have three at #10), and the engineering program barely cracks the top thirty.
The truth is, whenever I tell someone I went to Duke, I get one of two reactions. I either hear, “Oh, you must be so smart!” and I feel the need to correct them (“Actually pretty much none of the people I went to engineering school with are fit to be engineers,”), or I see them immediately start treating me as though I’m some sort of elitist, and I can’t blame them.
On the other hand, most people know that I’m a pretty big Duke athletics fan. I frequently issue disparaging comments about inferior institutions, and almost always immediately follow them up with a quick “Go Duke!”
How can I hypocritically claim to chafe against the elitism of the institution while simultaneously displaying it, you ask? To start with, Duke does athletics pretty well. That elitist coach I mentioned earlier? He’s really good at coaching basketball; while it’s not necessarily great sportsmanship to throw up the #1 sign and sing “We Are the Champions” on the plane ride back from winning an NCAA title game, it’s at least technically true.
But the thing that I really like about Duke’s athletics is that it unites the campus in a way that you don’t often otherwise experience. Whether you’re in the most exclusive sorority or you’re a founding member of the D&D club or you’re a math professor, everyone is on the same side and rooting for the same thing. Basketball games were one of the only places where people would leave their own petty elitisms behind and join a group that was larger than themselves; where nobody questions anyone’s decisions to sleep outside on a sidewalk for three nights in sub-freezing temperatures in order to watch Kyle Singler or Jabari Parker dunk on next year’s NBA rookie class. And nothing, nothing, will ever beat the feeling on campus the week after watching Gordon Hayward’s would-be buzzer beater rim out in the 2010 championship game. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
*I single out Greek life here not because all Greek life at Duke is “bad” or a “a problem,” but because I’m lazy and it’s loudest, most visible subculture is the same loudest, most visible subculture endemic to the institution.