Waking Up to Normalcy

We can escape the Dartmouth Bubble by recognizing its constraints.

by Clara Chin | 5/19/17 1:35am

This column was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."

At one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, the waiters wear denim aprons, the napkins have small embroidered black dots, the menus use a typewriter font and Kendrick Lamar plays on the radio while people eat classic brunch food with a Southwestern twist: breakfast sandwiches with foie gras, chilaquiles and steak and eggs. The high-end restaurants in Hanover are merely nice, following the standard prototype — “elegant” music, European bistro and waiters dressed in black. They are exceptional but nondescript.

The lack of identity in some of the restaurants in Hanover reminds me of a similar culture on campus. Democrats or Republicans, affiliated or unaffiliated, Dartmouth students seem to converge on one opinion — that we are different from the rest of the world. In our mythical “Bubble,” the students tend to be exceptionally wealthy, the fraternity parties are unlike any others and the sightings of people in “flair” uncommonly frequent. Whether you love or hate the Bubble, simply acknowledging its existence implies that you find the school unique and separate from the monolithic outside world. In reality, the Bubble creates an unfounded air of exceptionalism and masks our collective fear of normalcy.

School pride is not unique to Dartmouth College. To express their pride, students often feel the need to distinguish their school from others, however unrealistic that attempt may be. Other Ivy League colleges and similarly elite or prestigious institutions maintain a culture of elitism and a strong belief in their uniqueness very akin to ours. It is hard to imagine how fraternity culture at Dartmouth could be so drastically different from that at any other college. Our parties may be marginally different, since they depend on the people who attend and the activities they engage in, but the basics are universal.

One characteristic of the College that seems to vaguely legitimize the Bubble mentality is our low acceptance rate. Taking in around 10 percent of our applicants each year, Dartmouth suggests to its students that they are exceptional. With high test scores, stellar grades and perhaps even awards from athletic or artistic competitions, we look pretty good on paper. However, this type of excellence is, in some ways, exceedingly normal. Most of us tend to have safely followed the track laid out for us since kindergarten. We succeeded in institutions with clear-cut rules and conventional standards. But being exceptional goes beyond percentile rankings and cursory name recognition. Dartmouth students seem to be good at things that fall into the mainstream. We are good at being normal.

Two weekends ago, I interned at the Harlem International Film Festival. The volunteers I met introduced themselves as actors, filmmakers and photographers and talked about their artistic vision. I announced myself as a student. When I was asked what school I attended, everyone praised Dartmouth as a good school. As I combed through topics to talk about, I realized that most of our campus culture sounded exceptionally banal. Dartmouth has parties, drinking and hiking. Any stories related to those activities sound just like they would at any other school. They are interesting only to an audience already familiar with the characters, culture and geography. This view of Dartmouth from the outside was not the quirky identity perpetuated by the Bubble, but a trite, general and even boring outlook easily applied to any other college of similar caliber.

We were accepted to Dartmouth by fitting standards in higher education and continue to gain social, academic and professional acceptance by fitting even more standards. Those at the top of the social ladder tend to be affiliated with “A-side” Greek organizations and “fun” societies that only perpetuate classic elitist and exclusive norms. Moreover, we are rewarded for getting good grades but not for taking risks. What I miss most about my life before Dartmouth was the spirit of taking on intellectual pursuits for pleasure instead of for career climbing. One of the film festival volunteers I met read “Sula” by Toni Morrison in his downtime — not for a class, but because he felt like it. At Dartmouth, I find that many students work to pad their resumes and spend most of their downtime in fraternity basements. While partying is not necessarily reprehensible and while I am sure my Sula-reading friend attends his fair share of parties, it seems that the College generally leaves little time for intellectual leisure.

I am not claiming that Dartmouth students do not ever take risks. Some students major in unconventional subjects, while other students code apps or launch startups. Even these students can rest easy knowing our odds of graduating — just like at our Ivy League equivalents — are pretty high, giving us a cushion for risk and a sense of security for our future. But when I try to take risks, I often feel like they are unwelcome. For example, I have received As on simple, straightforward and well-written papers. But when I have taken the time to explore a more complex subject, my grade has usually suffered. Taking on an ambitious topic and seeking an innovative interpretation can leave less time for polishing and writing more drafts. The constant deadlines and fast-paced terms at Dartmouth often inhibit longer exercises in creativity.

I recognize that the outside world can be just as ordinary as Dartmouth. It may sound exciting to be an actor, but many of the people I met have normal and often uneventful day jobs. On the other hand, many probably do underestimate how interesting Dartmouth students can be. While the College’s culture itself is not particularly unique, many of its students are pushing boundaries by exploring eclectic research topics or adopting new positions and endeavors. Instead of either criticizing or praising the supposed Dartmouth Bubble, we should accept that there are many schools like ours and many people like us. By not obsessively and falsely creating distinctions, reconciling with our normalcy may allow us to develop our own personal visions and individual experiences more productively.