Sellers: Contextualizing Criticism

by Emily Sellers | 2/8/15 7:02pm

As far as I have witnessed, most expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo on campus coming from marginalized groups have been met with one swift rebuttal — “If you don’t like it here, leave.” This is a popular response, especially when the Greek system and the College’s culture are being questioned. Not only is this largely unfeasible, it is offensive to the notion of progress and equality.

First, let’s examine the reasons one might not be able to leave or why withdrawal is not as simple as it may seem. The College prides itself on competitive financial aid, and many of the individuals who suffer most from aspects of the College’s culture benefit from its financial aid program. As an established college with a relatively large endowment, Dartmouth is often in a position to meet the financial needs of its students more effectively than many state schools or smaller private colleges. It is highly classist and simply incorrect to assume that a student has the financial stability necessary to transfer schools. The College’s location may also be more convenient for many students, as nearly half of the student body hails from New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Additionally, it can be difficult to adjust to a new environment, especially if someone is transferring due to negative circumstances. For those who already suffer from mental health disorders, adjusting to a new environment could exacerbate existing conditions.

Furthermore, the assumption that one can or should choose a university based solely on the campus culture is baffling. When applying to colleges I made my decisions based on the quality of education. We should not forget that Dartmouth is, above all else, a college dedicated to a strong liberal arts education. Regardless of the social atmosphere, the College provides students with incredible opportunities to grow intellectually. A student should not be forced to forgo this simply because they express their discontent with other aspects of the College. Again, the notion that someone can sacrifice an elite education in order to transfer seems to be based on privileged assumptions. Not everyone can fall back on family connections to secure a post-graduate job, and the promise of an elite degree is not something many students can simply turn away.

My biggest issue with asserting that dissatisfied students should transfer, however, is the underlying suggestion that marginalized individuals within a culture cannot and should not question majority decisions. It ignores the fact that minority groups can still find value in a culture that does not explicitly serve them. Students who acknowledge the College’s problems are still allowed to treasure the experience as a whole. This respect is likely what drives calls to progress in the first place, as one usually cares about something before they want to change it for the better.

The voices of minority groups and those who suffer at the hands of tradition and institutionalized ills matter just as much as those of the beneficiaries of such systems. It is undemocratic and illiberal to suggest that those who disagree with the majority should “just transfer,” as this implies that those in the majority are inherently better than those in the minority. Why should one group be forced to leave, while another is only forced to listen? Imagine a different situation — a black man is hired at a new company, yet is subject to extreme racism every day, from derogatory comments to exclusion from group meetings. Would it be acceptable to ask him to leave because he didn’t like the racist behavior of his coworkers?

It is up to the entire community to think critically about their practices, and each person in the culture is allowed to question potentially harmful traditions. Cultures change in this way all the time, and it does not compromise the things we love the most about belonging. Dartmouth is no exception, and it is time to think of legitimate response to grievances. Telling someone to leave if they don’t like what is happening assumes that those who like the College unconditionally have more of a claim to Dartmouth than the those who don’t. We are all students at the College, and if we are going to move Dartmouth forward we need to do so in a way that acknowledges our equal standing and encourages productive dialogue.