I had forgotten about the night.
For six years I lived, as a faculty member in residence, in a freshmen dorm on Duke's East Campus. I did so inspired in part by Thomas Jefferson's ideal of an "academical village," a community in which scholars and students live side-by-side and, in doing so, enhance each other's educations. But practicality also played a role. The housing was a much needed "perk" during the period I was sending my own children to college. I applied for this residency when I moved to Duke in 2008.
I enjoyed the experience. But what I hadn't realized until I moved out of the dorm and into my own house just two weeks ago was that, in our nation's colleges and universities, night no longer exists.
Of course, college students have almost always been nocturnal, studiously burning the midnight oil while craftily avoiding early morning classes. But, at least when I was in college -- some forty years ago -- it was still possible to experience the darkness and quiet that sneaked up on all of us after sunset.
Today colleges and universities have banished the night.
Three forces have contributed to this change: (1) the end of parietals; (2) the growing concerns for safety; and (3) the intrusion of technology.
Parietals -- those antiquated Victorian rules regulating when members of the opposite sex could visit a student's room -- came crashing down in the wake of the sexual revolution and the growth of co-education in the late sixties and early seventies.
Safety concerns began to alter the experience of nighttime on college campuses at just about this same time. Not only were dormitory corridors suddenly filled all night long with the glare of blazingly bright lights, brighter and brighter lights were used to illuminate outdoor spaces as well. The lights outside my dorm on Duke's East Campus were so bright that I often had to wear a mask to sleep.
Finally, more recently, technology has invaded the dorm. In the old days, students had access to a television in a common room. Today, most colleges and universities provide cable in individual rooms. But the arrival of personal computers is even more disruptive, linking students up not merely with scholarly articles and instant access to rare books but also to uninterrupted streams of entertainment.
Not surprisingly, many college administrators and counselors have grown increasingly concerned about the challenges students face in order to get enough sleep. And most college students report that they are often sleep-deprived.
But I have a deeper concern here. While it is true that many great scholars and scientists -- perhaps most famously Isaac Newton -- have functioned on very little sleep, the loss of the night has disconcerting implications for how our students learn.
I know this vividly now that I have rediscovered the night. At a certain point, after sunset, the world around me grows dark and increasingly quiet. I have no television. Then, an hour or two before going to bed, I disconnect from the Internet, choosing to read the old-fashioned way: in the quiet pages of printed books.
Most college students today are denied this experience. Dorms are loud and infused with artificial light. Television and computer screens flicker with bright images until the early morning hours. In such a world, I wonder, where is there time for reflection?
Without the experience of nighttime, when do students reflect on what they have learned earlier in the day? When do they have a chance to sit with friends and talk about literature and art, about the great ideas, or about politics and their future aspirations? When do they dream? And while there is ample opportunity for sex, I am less and less certain that there is opportunity for love, a passion the night has notoriously fostered since time immemorial.
Of course I know that some observers have mourned the loss of the night ever since gas lanterns began to be used not only in private homes but also in public places in the early nineteenth century.
Nonetheless we are at a critical turning point. A university without the night is a soulless place, cut off from the past, and geared only towards efficiencies, the present, and the utilitarian.