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The Timid Generation
William Johnson
March 11, 1968
The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood
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March 11, 1968

The Timid Generation

The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood

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"We don't necessarily take the ritual stuff very seriously," says Bill Goodwin, a senior Phi Delta Theta, "but we think the system works fine and lets kids be closer to their—uh—brothers than they'd be if they just lived in a bunch of dorms without some tie."

More often than not, when members of the Duke student body do get aroused, it will be over a totally parochial issue, such as having the opposite sex in their rooms (men now can) or having liquor in their rooms (everyone can; the girls were allowed to this year) or getting Playboy magazine on the campus newsstands (it is, as of a year or so ago). And last fall there was a campus-wide referendum that created some agony and antagonism. It had to do with a dictum issued by the student government, which is controlled by an activist-liberal segment that came to power largely because many of the more conservative students did not bother to vote in campus elections. The referendum was on a ruling that no university-affiliated student organization should be allowed to hold social affairs at segregated off-campus facilities. There are still numerous whites-only spots in Durham that are very good for fraternity parties, including the Hope Valley Country Club, which numbers quite a few of Duke's faculty and administrators among its members, not excluding Basketball Coach Bubas, Football Coach Harp, Athletic Director Cameron and President Knight. In the referendum the students voted the measure down, arguing that they were not really segregationists, but that they just did not like their "individual rights" being trampled by "those goddam radicals" in the student government. A short time after the referendum Duke's minute population of Negroes—about 70 of the school's 4,622 undergraduates—staged a study-in outside President Knight's office and, eventually, the administration overruled the vote and outlawed organization off-campus parties at segregated places. By then the student body had cooled off, and accepted the new policy meekly.

"I think a lot of kids here feel impotent," says Abbie Doggett, a senior from Lakeland, Fla. "The reason is that things have gotten so big—on a national scale—that kids feel they can't really influence anything themselves. Most of them really aren't segregationists but, on the other hand, they are not involved in trying to push for lots of progress in civil rights either."

Many students at Duke seem to be plodding patiently along, doggedly heading for some impenetrable postcollege cubbyhole—back to Daddy's baling-wire factory or into the womb of corporation law, or to a selling job where a man is paid a guaranteed salary rather than paid by commissions. They seem to have put a low ceiling on their ideals, to have leaped into weary adulthood at a discouragingly early age. They seem unalterably sensible and strangely self-protective.

Let it be perfectly clear that this is by no means a phenomenon at Duke alone. Dr. Jack Preiss, a cool Duke sociologist who has taught at Brown and Michigan State and who likes to brighten his office with huge posters of W. C. Fields and Allen Ginsberg, says, "If anyone has to give labels to generations—and no one does, of course—I guess I'd call this the Timid Generation. The kids seem to constrict themselves, shut things out and go about their business with a quiet anxiety. You have to push them, cajole, almost coerce them into saying what they think. They live day to day, without too many plans—in a creative sense, I mean—and they seem to have no direction, nothing that they find worth fighting for. Life seems unmanageable, and people simply become more and more adept at avoiding being hurt or embarrassed. They have a whole set of masks for appropriate occasions, and their major concern is that they're wearing the right mask at the right time. Nothing turns anyone on. Hell, a football game is like a cricket match, like a day at Newport, gentle and sedate. Kids learn to survive by not being different."

Whatever the case may be elsewhere, Duke students themselves agree that there is just enough complacency, just enough of a veneer of sophistication, just enough pressure from studies to keep their university in a relatively constant state of rest. President Knight, 46, a rumpled, scholarly Yale man who used to serve sherry in class when he taught English there 14 years ago, says, "There is not a great deal of preoccupation with protest here, and that, I think, reflects the background of the students. You do not have many demonstrations with real mob violence at Princeton or Yale either. It is not that our students feel they are so genteel that it is beneath them to crusade, it is just that their attitude toward violence is to abhor it; it is an alien form. I think the tone, if I may use such a word, at Duke is really quite fine; it is a lively, diversified place. For example, our football players are not considered just gladiators, they are also excellent students and fine young men. Our students are not inclined to take what you might call an extremely doctrinaire approach toward anything. We are quite a diverse place, and I think the one-sided question is not really an acceptable part of the dialogues within our student body."

A term that is frequently used around Duke—along with "diversity"—is "national university," which is accurate enough, since no more than 25% of the students and alumni are from North Carolina. There are plenty of people who call Duke the Harvard of the South. Although the university administration and the alumni love the title, they usually disclaim it with fairly credible modesty, saying, "Oh, no, heh-heh, there is only one Harvard."

Duke is almost as selective as the Ivys and nearly as expensive, too—roughly $3,300 a year for everything, compared to around $3,750 at Harvard or Yale. It is almost as cosmopolitan, its enrollment coming from every state in the nation, although there are more from the U.S. Southeast than any other quadrant of the country. When it comes to getting the kind of superlative student every private school cherishes—choir singer, class president, mathematics genius, A student, high school quarterback and Euripides-reader all wrapped up in one—Duke often finds itself competing head-on with the Ivy League. Nor does it always lose, because a Duke degree in engineering or law or medicine or the sciences or liberal arts is possibly as useful as one from Brown, Cornell or Columbia, if not from Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Duke's reputation for academic excellence is relatively new. There was a time in the late '20s and early '30s when it was best known as a school full of heavy-drinking, fun-loving Ernie Fraternie types. There was a time, so the story goes, that the school offered a gigantic salary to a celebrated scholar, and the professor replied, "Accept with pleasure. But where is Duke University?" There was a time when Duke was best known either for the occult experiments in extrasensory perception of Dr. Joseph Rhine or for the magnificent "Iron Dukes" of Wallace Wade. There was a time in the late '40s and '50s when it was known for the golfing feats of Mike Souchak or the sprinting brilliance of Dave Sime or the quarterbacking skills of Sonny Jurgensen. And there was a time when it was known as the best minor-league baseball training ground outside the American Association because Jack Coombs was the coach and, though no one could prove it, a lot of people guessed that the major leagues ultimately put more money into athletic scholarships than Duke's most-celebrated athlete, Dick Groat, earned in his first couple of seasons in the majors.

There was also a time when Duke was best known as a nice little Methodist school named Trinity College. But that was before 1924, the year that Tarheel Tobacco Monopolist-Millionaire James Buchanan (Buck) Duke offered up a $40 million endowment to create—"Instantly!"—a university named after his family and patterned after Princeton. His reason for selecting Princeton was a definite one: "The buildings there appeal to me." Buck Duke was one of those rugged geniuses spawned by capitalism who spent all of his life accumulating a massive fortune, but seldom found either the time or the desire for anything much more recreational than looking up from the old balance sheet and lighting another cigar. He usually shunned publicity, but when he did pop for a reporter he would answer secret-of-my-success questions by saying things such as, "I worked from early morning until late at night, and I was always sorry to leave off at night." And just before his money changed Trinity College into Duke University, he said for publication, "I don't believe that a college education does a man much good in business."

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