Fight Conformity

Don’t let Dartmouth’s culture define who you are.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/18/18 3:20am

“Live authentically.” That’s such a common thing to hear, and it’s something most people likely believe. People tend to think of themselves as genuine, and everyone constantly hears how they should explore their interests, develop their passions and otherwise form an independent identity. People seem to know that they should stand up for what they believe in. They understand that they shouldn’t define themselves by a stereotype. But unfortunately, at Dartmouth, students often ignore that.

Dartmouth’s culture frequently discourages individuality. The campus lives by a line from the Alma Mater — “Lest the old traditions fail” — and it focuses intensely on its rituals. Some of that is good, in that it bonds the community together. Unfortunately, that close sense of community comes with a tight set of expectations, expectations that too often push students toward a particular way of life. The College’s ethos values conformity to a set of norms, and students all suffer for it. Dartmouth needs to cast off its conformism if it hopes to succeed as a liberal arts university in the 21st century.

More so than comparable universities, Dartmouth has a stereotype. The Greek system dominates social life, and heavy drinking is permitted, if not encouraged — intellectual engagement outside of class less so. Students feel pressure to define themselves by their organizations, whether a Greek house, the Dartmouth Outing Club, a sports team or some other group. Then there is the Dartmouth ideal itself, the happy, athletic, laid back, intelligent-but-not-too-intellectual student that supposedly fits in best here. Students feel pressured to fit that rigid archetype, even when it goes against their personal values. That isn’t something the community should promote.

Any student here understands the pressure to conform. The notion that someone would choose not to go out on a Friday night is foreign — yet how many times have students felt pressured into participating? Dartmouth’s culture tends to shy away from intellectual discussions outside of class. Students are expected to prefer easy courses and otherwise view intellectual engagement as a chore. But of course, most Dartmouth students don’t just tolerate intellectual discussion; the very fact that they attend this college reveals their passion for learning. The prevailing ethos does not reflect the student body, but students feel the need to conform to it. Over time, that self-perpetuating Dartmouth archetype wedges students’ personalities into its mold.

Beyond the conformity issue, the person encouraged by Dartmouth’s prevailing culture is not always the sort of person students should aspire to be. Dartmouth’s laid-back mindset and friendliness set a good example, but members of this community ought not to forget the harmful tendencies tolerated and encouraged by campus culture. The College’s well-known problem with alcohol is just one of whole range of dangerous behaviors normalized at the College. The issues with Dartmouth’s culture have been well-addressed elsewhere, but it’s worth remembering: much of what it pushes students to do is not in anyone’s best interest.

For all that it sometimes promotes conformity, Dartmouth holds tremendous opportunities both in and out of class, and for many it is a place to love and to call home. But no one should be defined by an institution. However much Dartmouth, or any other organization, forms a part of its students’ lives, those students still live their own experiences. That independence can seem challenging. It’s easier to be told what to do, how to act and what to enjoy. In the end though, that sort of life is unfulfilling.

It doesn’t end after Dartmouth. Many jobs come complete with a defined corporate ethos and a clear ladder of advancement. Bear in mind how over half of Dartmouth graduates typically enter finance and consulting, both industries that often feature this model. Of course, many graduates choose those fields for good reasons and go on to lead fulfilling careers. For how many, though, does that job merely fill in for Dartmouth? Just like Dartmouth and its clear-cut social expectations, a job can become another institution shunted in to fill the space left by a lack of any real identity.

Thankfully, Dartmouth doesn’t force people to fit the stereotype. The College should work to eliminate both the archetype and the pressure to conform, but in the meantime the impetus for change is on the students. If all people get out of this college experience is four years of escape from the real world at “Camp Dartmouth,” then they’ve failed themselves in their education. Pressure to conform or no, students have an obligation to take advantage of the opportunities for personal, social and intellectual growth that Dartmouth gives them. They should take the time and really consider why they are here and what they want to get out of college. If everyone did that, perhaps the culture of conformity would change. The Dartmouth experience should involve challenging one’s perceptions, confronting new ideas and gaining a fuller sense of self. All of that requires authenticity.

Students frustrated by the Dartmouth mold should know that they are not alone. Many here feel pressured to be someone they’re not, and that’s a problem. But whether they enjoy Dartmouth’s culture or not, all students should assert their authenticity and refuse to let Dartmouth’s culture define them.

If Dartmouth wants to succeed in the coming decades, it needs to wrest itself free from its conformist culture. This will take time and effort, but change is possible. In the meantime, current members of this community shouldn’t let social pressures hold them back. To Dartmouth students, we urge you to take risks, to be bold and live authentically. Never compromise who you are in order to fit in. This college may not be perfect, but it offers incredible opportunities for learning, for personal growth and yes, for fun. Make the most of your time at Dartmouth, and don’t ever let any institution define who you are.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.