June 12, 2011More
June 8th, 2014More
The Dartmouth is the daily student newspaper at Dartmouth College. Founded in 1799, it is America's oldest college newspaper. It is published by The Dartmouth, Inc., an independent, nonprofit corporation chartered in the state of New Hampshire. Many alumni of The Dartmouth have gone on to careers in journalism, and several have won Pulitzer Prizes.
The Dartmouth Review is an independent, bi-weekly newspaper at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Founded in 1980 by a number of disenchanted staffers from the College’s daily newspaper, it quickly rose to national prominence for its coverage of campus social issues and the provocative political positions it has sometimes adopted. Although the paper has frequently been praised for the quality of its writing — most recently by Dartmouth’s 17th President, Jim Yong Kim — it is perhaps most famous for having spawned a movement of politically conservative U.S. college newspapers that would come to include The Yale Free Press, The Stanford Review, The Harvard Salient, The California Review, The Princeton Tory, and The Cornell Review.
By Joe Rago ‘05
Editor’s Note: This piece was published in The Dartmouth Review on January 12, 2005.
These days, ‘Old School’ seems to imply something out of time, archaic, like sitting for a daguerreotype, keeping a commonplace book, eating pie for breakfast, clattering away at a Smith & Corona, getting cigarettes from a machine, dashing off a cablegram, filing a prescription for laudanum, practicing phrenology, using a spittoon, or picking up a stenographer at a cocktail bar. But the Old School is also a state of being and a state of mind. It is a life of extremes. It is not a kind life.
I’ll work up to that, though. The very idea of an ‘Old School,’ I think, has special resonance at Dartmouth today. More and more, I’ve noticed a sort of quiet dissatisfaction with the way things are – not of a political nature, really, but a spiritual one. There is a growing sense that affairs here, for whatever reason, have been watered down and that this institution has lost a bit of itself in the process. It’s not a movement by any means. It’s subterranean. It’s those moments when you happen across an attitude or a personality or a tendency that seems like it should have been ground away some time ago – a tweedy, and-let’s-not-have-any-nonsense-then type professor, say – and it’s like a galvanic battery has gone off in your brain. An encounter with the out of time, with the archaic, with the Old School, can be uncanny.
There is a half-forgotten history to Dartmouth College, the weight of which cannot be denied and which is intrinsically a part of who we are today. It is not among the gossamer P.R. in admissions viewbooks, Princeton Reviews, and official speechmaking, but it is fixed like a photograph in a chemical bath. And what many College students are realizing is that in the transition from Old School Dartmouth to New School Dartmouth, we’ve allowed decay to pass for progress.
Study the contrasts. In December, the Dean’s office imported ‘labyrinths’ to help harried students “relax” and “deal with” the stress of finals period. By Labyrinths, they meant large floor mats painted with a roundabout path, much like the design on a Celtic emblem. By relax, they meant students were to take a “study break” and amble along the path, which, according to one Dean, “winds back and forth and becomes a metaphor for our lives.”
Here is how Edwin J. Bartlett, a member of the class of 1872 and later a professor at the College, described his student days:
“Whatever customs elsewhere, here, removing an offending stove from a recitation room and throwing it into the river; firing a gun so heavily loaded as to break 320 panes of glass, in retaliation for offensive discipline; turning the occupants out of a dilapidated building and razing it to the ground; tarring and feathering a bad man; blowing a horn in recitation; and wrecking a bookstore go beyond the commonplace in college pranks, especially when superposed upon all the familiar college disorders.”
This is drawn from his trim memoir, A Dartmouth Book of Remembrance: Pen-Sketches of Hanover and the College before the Centennial and After. No labyrinths there. No metaphors for our lives, either.
Bartlett wrote that his “stories of turbulence, insubordination, and personal annoyance” would “seem incredible” to contemporary readers. No kidding. That’s more so true today than when he was writing in 1922, and it’s true because what he describes is quite unlike our own experience. To be fair, the past is usually wild and strange when it’s held up against what we’re familiar with. This is one of the primary reasons we look back in the first place: to see how we are different, to see how we have changed over time, and to appreciate the contingency of our own assumptions. There are connexions between past and present too, similarities. Another reason we look back is to see how we have stayed the same, to see what has endured, and to understand why what has endured has endured.
To honestly understand how we are different and how we are the same is to engage the past in an informed way. It clarifies, and it gives us perspective: not only where we’re going but where we should be going. Hotly contested territory, no doubt; but if you’re looking for decided views on what to make of it all, Old School America: 511 Reflections on the Traditional and Patriotic Values that Best Define America is a good place to start. Peter Slovenski, Patrick Vardaro, and Rich Sherman boldly champion the relevance of the past against the fissiparousness of the present. “With old school America,” they write, “it’s out with the new, and in with the old.”
It doesn’t take long to work through this modest volume. Essentially, it’s a prompt-book. The Reflections the title promises aren’t reflections in the sense of contemplations or meditations. More exactly, they’re declarations. Jukeboxes, Mother Goose, and striving to do your best, the authors assert, are Old School. Narcissism, gambling, and political correctness are not Old School. Shortcuts across vacant lots are Old School. Forwarding e-mail is not Old School. Colleges and universities used to be Old School, but they are not anymore; still, “studious people, sometimes called nerds,” remain Old School nonetheless.
This is an exercise in taxonomy. There are organizing principles and natural relationships, – orders and classes, too. The authors are quite sure that this thing here is Old School, while that thing over there just doesn’t make the grade, thank you very much. If nothing else, they’ve got conviction. Whether or not they’re convincing is another matter. Here is chapter two, “Old School Truths & Traditions,” in its entirety – “Queen Elizabeth is old school. George Washington Carver was old school. King Arthur was old school. Susan B. Anthony was old school. John Glenn is old school. Thomas Edison was old school. The Wright Brothers were old school. Marconi was old school. William Tyndale was old school. Respecting culture from the past and respecting crazy old relatives – even when you don’t agree with them – is old school. Being honest to others and with yourself is old school. Amelia Earhart was old school. Nikola Tesla was old school. The August 1963 civil rights march on Washington was an old school march. The Polish Solidarity movement was old school. Religions are old school because they are usually devoted to finding and preserving eternal truths. Harry Truman was old school.”
What the hell are these guys babbling about?
Perhaps aware of the need to distinguish the sense from the sensibility, the authors interlard explanatory remarks between the lists. The Old School “describes a way of life that reached its cultural peak in America between 1900 and 1967.” It emphasized “honor, hard work, romance, loyalty, patriotism, courage, religion” and “required roughly four things: an education, hard work, common sense, and not making babies until you were ready to raise them.” The Old School was “proud of the achievements of Western civilization” and had “a reverence for the past.”
Now we’re just deeper into the mess. That’s not grounds for incorporating Confucius or the Eiffel Tower into the Old School. And if the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China are Old School, as the authors maintain, the rationale is not. While old and enduring, they best describe nothing about America, and nothing about Western civilization, besides. Perhaps they emphasize hard work.
The precise definition of Old School America is further muddled when Messrs. Slovenski, Vardaro, and Sherman turn to our national flaws. The Old School, they write, “prides itself on retaining traditions and staying the same,” but it is also “forever getting smarter and better by comparing various ways of doing things and eventually uniting behind the best ideas and turning them into traditions.” True, cultures survive not because they are immutable but because they are adaptable. But it beggars belief to argue, “For a while, the old school believed in racism, but in sermons and in classes we learned that all men were created equal. Then, for awhile, the old school believed in segregation. But in more sermons and more classes we came to understand that the civil rights movement contained the wisdom of the ages, and it was an old school movement.” Nonsense. This is not only flippant, but wrong.
What the authors of Old School America want is for us to look back at the past and have it inform the present. “Here,” they write in the introduction, “are some old school cultural standards that were admired in America from 1900 to 1967. They are standards we can still learn from today.” That is a sharp observation. Somehow we’ve gotten ourselves a low-carb, self-esteem, casual-Friday culture, and we hardly realize what we’ve lost. And an indelible part of this culture is its snobbery towards its former self. We see this all the time: those who go tearing back into the past, pick out its instances of moral travesty, and drag them back into the present, as evidence of just how bad it was back then. Old School America is clearly a reaction to this trend, but it just replaces the agenda: it goes charging back into the past, finds the things it wants to find, and drags them back into the present, as evidence of just how good it was back then.
I’m more sympathetic to the latter approach than to the former. But both get us nowhere. They bleach out the ambiguities.
For all the trumpeting of history in Old School America, the authors condescend to it. They’ve not given us Reflections in the sense of mirror images, the past as it actually was. They’ve found that it doesn’t live up to our own superior standards and they’ve cooked up a have-it-all utopia that will appeal to almost everyone. They’ve made the values we value now the values of the past, regardless of how historically exact the declarations may be. (Perhaps Americans were more patriotic between 1900 and 1967 than they are now. Perhaps not. They certainly were not more racially progressive. I don’t know how to gauge interest in jukeboxes, though I suspect it’s declined.)
In this sense, the Reflections of Old School America are reflections like mirror images, but they have very little to do with the reality of the past times and are just another reflection of our own. They’re familiar, because we’re looking at ourselves. And in order to do so, we have to give up something else, and it’s something far rarer and unquestionably more precious: to imagine the way another people lived, and to make sense of their way of making sense of the world.
What the authors don’t seem to appreciate is that the past will always be imperfect. It’s not that there is nothing in it to admire or learn from; nor is it that one should be unconditionally satisfied with the present – only a very lucky idiot is that. Rather, it’s that history is a complex process, and its influences are simultaneously many things. Sure, there were good, old days, but the Good Old Days never really were. To give the past a close reading is to find it was just as troubling and just as turbulent and just as checkered as the very much troubling, turbulent, checkered present.
Look at Dartmouth. We like to think of this school as an elite academic institution, as opposed to simply a good one, but it’s a relatively recent development. Dartmouth, the ninth and last of the colonial colleges, got on modestly and was drifting into irrelevancy by the end of the nineteenth century. It functioned as a finishing school for privileged New England school boys; the curriculum mostly consisted of the study of classic texts in Greek and Latin. President William Jewett Tucker 1861 inherited a school that was at best stagnant, while other comparable schools (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and the rest) were gradually drawing away in pursuit of higher educational ideals. It was only the reforms he initiated, continued by his successors, especially Ernest Martin Hopkins 1901, that kept Dartmouth from slipping under.
After he retired, President Tucker hoped he would live long enough to see three new buildings at Dartmouth – a gym, an administration building, and a library. He only lived long enough to see the first two. As late as the 1920s, Dartmouth was said to have the largest gymnasium and the smallest library of any school in America, which was probably true. (For years Dartmouth’s books were crammed into the basement of Wilson Hall.) The calumnious reputation so incensed President Hopkins that he personally saw to it that funds were raised to raise Baker Library.
The College was not dismissive of the life of the mind, quite. But it was still imbricated with a fighting frontier mentality in those days, the idea of the errand into the howling wilderness. It was more provincial and isolated, much more so than now. The surroundings were more spit-and-sawdust, less sophisticated, and so were the students. They were all men, and tended to go in heavily for sports. Toughness and fellowship were prized, and so were smarts, but – as we know from the MSS. catalogued in the College Archives – there was a pervasive sense that there was more to life than a monastic existence dedicated to study and academic scribbling.
And all this, combined with lenient, boys-will-be-boys discipline, gave Dartmouth a reputation for misbehavior, the sort of mischief that Ed Bartlett described. At first, it was just those fellows who amused themselves by herding the cattle from the common into the cellar of Dartmouth Hall, or cutting lead weights into the Chapel candles, so they would snuff out all at once during Sunday Vesper Services. Over time, juvenilia became entrenched resistance to the persistent attempts to subdue, – discipline, – domesticate, – housebreak a student body that on the whole remained unruly, willful, reliably out-of-control, and cheerfully irrepressible.
When President Tucker took over, for instance, he encountered an old custom known as ‘horning,’ an involuntary reckoning for professors who had for any reason awakened the wrath of the student body. He was forced to bring the practice to a decisive end in February 1896, when an unruly mob set upon a particularly unpopular instructor in his office in Thornton Hall. Many of the students were disguised in masquerade and armed with whatever noisemaking instruments were at hand – horns, drums, calliopes, whistle-woods, pots and pans – and, in President Tucker’s words, “proceeded to make the night hideous with their clamor.” The assailed professor – who’d announced in the classroom that he’d heard Dartmouth students were a rough set, but he’d expected to find at least a few gentlemen and had not yet unearthed one – made matters worse when the mob arrived, so they reduced his office and its contents to splinters; the affray spilt over onto the Green and lasted into the small hours of the morning. President Tucker expelled every single miscreant he could get his hands on, and that was that. A professor, so far as we know, was never horned again.
Still, President Tucker understood the passions that fueled this kind of behavior could be directed to more gainful pursuits. There were excesses, but, as he wrote in his 1919 autobiography My Generation, Dartmouth’s “advantage, and it was very great, was in the well-nigh unrivaled passion of an originating spirit at once creative, adventurous, and charged with spiritual power.”
Misbehavior, love for trouble, was not limited to the undesirables. It was an ingrained part of the Dartmouth experience. “I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a College man in your sense of the word,” Robert Frost 1896 said when he returned to campus in 1916, soon after the publication of his first collection of poems. “But I liked the rushes a good deal, especially the one in which our class got the salting and afterwards fought it out with the sophomores across pews and everything (it was in the Old Chapel) with old cushions and even footstools for weapons – or rather fought it to a standstill with the dust of ages we raised.” (Frost called his book, by the way, A Boy’s Will.)
When Frost spoke of a ‘rush,’ he was talking about a ritualized brawl, old as the College I guess, primarily fought between the freshmen and the sophomores. Marauding bands of upperclassmen would round up the pea-greens, the classes would array themselves into legions on opposite sides of the Green, and at the discharge of a pistol everyone would have at it. The rushes could degenerate into astonishing violence, and several students usually wound up unconscious. “If you have never been in a rush,” Clifford B. Orr 1922 wrote in a letter now in Rauner, “you do not know the feeling of endless pushing, panting, struggling, slipping, fearing every moment that you will be the next to disappear under the feet of the six or seven mad youths and be trampled.”
Orr’s class was one of the last to experience a genuine rush. The blood and guts got to be too much: the gashed faces, the black eyes, and the cut-up knuckles; the popped collarbones and busted femurs. Students considered it the most fun they’d never want to have again, administrators were increasingly concerned, and the rushes petered out. “It has surely been a grand and exciting time,” Orr wrote after his first rush. “Thank Heaven, though, it’s over.”
Change comes slowly at Dartmouth. Women were not admitted until 1972, extraordinarily late for higher education, and the Trustee decision was not unanimous. They fought it out for two full days before the verdict came down. The original ratio of men to women was eight to one. The environment for women must have been frightful. Everyone was extremely hostile. Blocks of men would sit with cards marked one to ten and rate the women as they entered the dining hall. A huge issue at the time was divvying up the bathrooms; one night, an aggrieved student stole every toilet seat from every female bathroom. Marysa Navarro came to Dartmouth in 1969 as one of the first female professors and was constantly mistaken for a secretary. Even President John Kemeny, largely responsible for coeducation in the first place, told Esquire magazine in 1979 that it was “a legitimate statement” to call Dartmouth men the Marlboro men of the East. They tend to be macho, he said.
Well I don’t know. Chris Miller 1963 is the author of the short stories that led to the popular Animal House film. (One’s in Rauner. It’s called, ‘Pinto’s First Lay.’) In a 1982 interview, he explained, “My feeling about having been at an all-male version of Dartmouth is that I gained something from that experience and I lost something from that experience. And what I lost was really any sense of what women are really about… I mean, women were something to be attacked and swallowed on weekends.”
What he said he gained was an understanding of intensity, Dartmouth’s “manic edge.” There was character to the place, without tempering influence. Mary Ellen Donovan 1972 remembered of coeducation, “Dartmouth was intimidating for everybody; I know there were a lot of unhappy guys, too.” And Lansing Lamont, who wrote a book called Campus Shock that partially dealt with coeducation at Dartmouth, talked about the way “you are always pushed to the limit by the men at Dartmouth.” Of course, he meant that in the pejorative sense, and he was talking about misogynistic behavior. But it’s the pushing of the limits that’s important, and losing that is something.
Dartmouth is more complicated than ever today, and diverse people respond varyingly to the way things used to be. Perhaps you find that culture thrilling. Perhaps not. But there is no denying that that is the way things used to be. That is an Old School: it cannot satisfy everybody.
This is not the kind of Old School that emerges from Old School America. That Old School is starched, scolding, and prim. “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” the authors write, “was on the cutting edge of the new school. Too much money and drinking for the old school,” they say. This is a saccharine, sentimental world of pogo sticks, hula hoops, letter sweaters, soda parlors, soapbox derbies, dance marathons, white picket fences, milkshakes with two straws, and make-out sessions with your best gal at Inspiration Point – all actual items. I’m not one to beat up on the Puritans (though burning witches used to be Old School, I’d say), but this is positively puritanical, at least in the modern connotation.
The goody-goody mentality detracts from the good points the authors do make, that there is such a thing as an Old School and that it is still relevant. But it was never this dull. And this is something, I suspect, that Mr. Slovenski understands himself. He is, after all, a member of the class of 1979.
The old saw, that old habits die hard, is an old saw for a reason. In an instance of good fortune, the details of which I’ll leave aside, I’ve acquired a substantial folio of College disciplinary reports from the early 1980s, right around the same time that Mr. Slovenski was here. These papers – which I doubt anyone in Parkhurst is still privy to, though I’m uncertain as to the state of administrative record-keeping – are a chronicle of behavior that’s both pervasive and breathtakingly irresponsible. In the characterization of the Dean of the College, it was “disgusting, immature, obscene, offensive, adolescent, etc.”
He was right. Here’s a typical citation, from November 1983: “—— had a lot to drink. He’s a freshman and it is a feeling that the punch that was served was very potent. Potent enough to make a girl turn blue and stop breathing and have to be transported to the Emergency Room in an ambulance with possible alcohol poisoning.”
Some of these memorandums concern the fraternity system. At times, the misdeeds are spectacular. The Dean of the College wrote to the Fraternity Board of Overseers in 1983, “I received a phone call from Jim Wright, Associate Dean of the Faculty… expressing concern about information brought to his attention by departmental colleagues regarding a student’s inability to submit course work on time due to a pledge trip that resulted in his being left on Nantucket. Upon further investigation of this situation, I learned that the pledges were flown (via a private plane) to Nantucket by current fraternity members.”
The efforts to get things under control were feeble. After several pledges were found “bound and gagged” on cowfields in Stratford, Vermont, this is the way the Dean of Students describes his exchange with the fraternity concerning the affair: “I pointed out to —— that binding and gagging and leaving students in the middle of the night just does not make sense and the risks involved in this type of activity are really tremendous. —— said that he could appreciate my point of view, but he seems to feel that there are people who really want to do these kinds of activities, and if the students want to participate why should the College be so concerned. I admitted to —— that traditions die hard and it is probably reasonable to expect that it will take time for fraternity members to understand and appreciate the concerns that are held by the College regarding some of the questionable pledge activities that have been institutionalized over the years at the College.”
Later, a branch of the Dean’s Office issued “some suggestions for pledge raid safety” to the fraternities, including providing “shoes” and discouraging “the use of tape or rope.” The memorandum optimistically concluded, “Thanks!”
Then there is the infamous Gile Circuit case. The object of the Gile circuit was to consume a beer at every dormitory and every Greek house on campus, no mean feat. (It was so-called because the circuit traditionally began at the Gile dorm; the dorms were allowed to host social functions in those days.) One evening in April 1982, a few fellows attempted to complete a double circuit. As they travelled, curious students began to follow them, and soon a large crowd was building. For whatever reasons, the endeavor ended badly, and its final moments are only understood in hazy terms. At 5:30 in the A.M., Webster Avenue was engulfed by fist-fighting and rioting. Students were throwing stones and empty vodka bottles at each other and touching off bottle-rockets. Reports indicated that firecrackers were thrown at dogs. The fraternity houses were savaged, if not razed to the ground, as they might have been in Ed Bartlett’s day. Dozens of students were treated in the emergency room at Mary Hitchcock.
In the aftermath, the Dean of the College noted, “I personally inspected the outside of —— two days after the incident, and noted at least one dozen broken windows… I also understand that the shrubs in the immediate area were uprooted and tossed through windows. I’m certain we all agree that such behavior has absolutely no legitimate explanation.” He wrote, “Because I do not believe that this is the image that fraternities at Dartmouth want to convey, much less the reality of what fraternities want to be, I am writing to ask your cooperation in curtailing any such behavior in the future.” However, he continued, “This has been a difficult letter for me to write, as the freedom and fellowship which I enjoyed as an undergraduate fraternity member at Dartmouth are easily remembered.”
The leaders of the houses involved were called into his office to explain themselves. During one such meeting, a house president began to roll through the usual excuses – these were a few bad seeds, – well why should the College be so concerned, – in any event it won’t happen again, etc. A look of imperturbable displeasure fell over the face of the Dean, and he reached down, pulled out the fraternity’s disciplinary folder, and slammed it to his desktop. The folio was hefty and well-thumbed; and the thud brought the dilations to a sudden swinging pause. Silence. Silence. Silence. “This, gentlemen,” the Dean finally said, “is a litany of horrors.” And he was right.
In very recent years – the early nineties, so far as I can tell – circumstances finally started to chill. Students stopped driving gold balls into the windows of Parkhurst and beat their clubs into ploughshares. The frat basements, which used to be so filthy that you could lose the soles of your shoes just in getting around, were finally cleaned up. Now they are inspected once a week by the campus police.
A short time ago I met an alum who attended the College right around the time things began to settle down. Over small talk, we got to talking about the Greek system, he asked me if I was in a house, and so forth. “Well,” he concluded, “I’ll tell you this, if I’d even wanted to join a fraternity, I never would have been Valedictorian.” Sign of the times, perhaps?
Think of Giff Foley 1969. Foley blew into Hanover in 1965 on a chopper motorcycle, a freshman football star from Winnekta. He was tough in every sense. Jeffrey Hart, his close friend, and professor of English Emeritus, said that when he hit a man on the field – he played defensive end – when he drilled someone, the guy would “just stop, like an arrow quivering in a tree.” Foley was known to play hard off the field as well. He eventually came to an unspoken arrangement with the Hanover police; he was too likeable and too violent for them to handle. During his sophomore year, he opposed coeducation and hired a plane to loop around a big football game trailing an ad banner that read, GIFF SAYS NO. The stands, I’m told, went bananas.
Soon enough, his extracurricular activities ran him afoul of a few Deans and he joined the service and got some discipline. He earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart and when he returned to Dartmouth he had become “a good student and civilized, sort of.” After Dartmouth he ended up at Harvard Business School and was highly successful in the corporate world. He led a good rich life; but he could not live cautiously. Giff Foley’s final summons tragically came when his vintage World War II aeroplane stalled out while he was doing barrel rolls over Niagara Falls. Professor Hart eulogized him with words from Yeats: “Soldier, scholar, horseman, he… What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”
Giff Foley, I think, was Old School. That valedictorian fellow was not Old School. Tarring and feathering a bad man is Old School. A Labyrinth is not Old School. Maybe I have more in common with the authors of Old School America than I’ve let on.
Of course, many of these stories seem to involve alcohol, and, it might even be said, hard drinking is the unfortunate prerequisite to most of them. Judson D. Hale 1955 said that one of the milestones of his Dartmouth Career was “my first drink (followed on the same occasion by my second, third, fourth, and fifth)… the first of many College episodes in which, sad to say, alcohol played a major role.” He later regretted those years terribly, considering them “a precious waste of time.” Hale, in fact, was expelled two months prior to graduation for inadvertently vomiting on the Dean of the College and his wife during a concert in Webster Hall. Still, things did not remain so unpleasant. In a short while he was drafted, fought at the Czechoslovakian border, acquired tuberculosis, and, after his convalescence, was reinstated at Dartmouth by the very Dean he had desecrated with the contents of his stomach. He finally graduated in 1958, and he and the Dean remained friends for life.
Perhaps the abuse of substances and all that goes with it are only the symptoms of a certain frame of mind, and not the cause of it. It’s not as though recreational intemperance somehow burrows into all men’s souls; and while surely it is ruinous for some, leading to a life of addiction and an early grave, addictions run both ways. The compulsions that lead to abuse often lead to greater things, – exhilarating, extravagant, unconventional, and occasionally tragic. Those who thrived under such a regimen thought things more thrilling at their heights and depths. Which is to say, when there were risks involved.
Before Dartmouth is dismissed as an irredeemable sink of iniquity, this ought to be considered. The College’s erstwhile student culture might have been coarse, profane, austere, grim, crowded to the full – certainly not for everyone – but its appeal was genuine and unadulterated, always drawing strong thinkers and colorful personalities to the Hanover Plain. And if these ardent spirits thrived on fast living and, well, ardent spirits, what of it? It’s certainly no worse than now, when most things are purified and sanitized and spackled with pretensions and affectations. Nearly everyone’s been licked. New School Dartmouth often feels like an industrial mill, the jennies and shuttles and throstles of the looms calibrated just so, turning out résumé after résumé of sufficient pedigree and illustriousness to land a job. Students today are almost depressingly career-oriented. They have all their lives to become brokers and bankers and congressmen and captains of industry, and already they have done so. Pretty soft, I call it. Pretty soft.
Old School Dartmouth, it seems to me, rejected this kind of abstemious, risk-less living. Every escapade was an opportunity to one-up the one before, and there was little enjoyment or satisfaction found in moderation or restraint. For all their turpitude, when the boys here got into something, they got into it right up to their eyeballs. If they were going to horn a professor, they were going to destroy his office. If they were going to rush the Green, they were going to rush until they were bleeding and unconscious. If they were going to riot on Webster Avenue, they were going to dig up the shrubs and fling them through the windows. And if they were going to drink a beer, hell, they were going to damn well drink fifty beers.
That is wry, of course. Still, the need to get into something up to one’s eyeballs is special and if that was not an academic part of the Dartmouth experience it was essential nonetheless. The lessons were (and are) endlessly applicable. If you were to make an accounting of the current avatars of Dartmouth College – Jeffrey Immelt ’78, Bradford Evans ’64, Peter Fahey ’68, for starters – I think you would find more of them of the Old School than the New. Easy as it is to dismiss Old School Dartmouth as a culture of misbehavior, vulgarity, and debauchery, that culture, which loudly predominated at Dartmouth for decades, did have a prescription for producing creative, adventurous, spiritual fellows. Our Dartmouth, which is tamer and more decorous, does not.
To be Old School at Dartmouth today is to recognize this dilution. It is to stop apologizing and making excuses and mincing about; to strip away all the pettiness and the timidity and to look at the cloying, self-pitying cowardice flitting around this place and say, – there has got to be something more than this.
There was, once. And there still is; but it is diminishing, and found among fewer and fewer students, and only in isolated pockets. Cast your lot with the hold-outs. That’s it, you know, that’s it.
Robert Frost attended Dartmouth only briefly and rebelliously; but he taught, read, and lectured here for decades, and the College became an enormously powerful element in his life. In 1962, two months before he died, he visited for the last time and spoke about his poetry and his world. And what made them all worthwhile was ‘extravagance.’ “I look on the universe as a kind of an exaggeration anyway, the whole business,” he said. “That’s the way you think of it: great, great, great expense – everybody trying to make it mean something more than it is.” In the face of this, something authentic has “an exaggerated claim” for its very authenticity, extravagant because such things are so uncommon. “And then, I could go right on with pretty near everything I’ve done. There’s always this element of extravagance. It’s like snapping the whip: Are you there? Are you still on? Are you with it? Or has it snapped you off?”
Frost was essentially making the same argument President Tucker made, that Dartmouth was “creative, adventurous, and filled with spiritual power.” Old School is at heart a state of being and a state of mind, an appreciation that it is always your choice, that you can always decide, that you can always transcend the mediocrity of the masses, that modernity is not always essential. It is to do the rarest of things, to interrogate your convictions: always asking yourself if you really believe what you say you believe and if you’re ready to live it. Are you there? Are you still on? Are you with it? What’s the point, if you’re not going all out?