Through The Looking Glass: A Billion Dartmouths

The College can't be all things to all people, but it's a different entity to each.

by Parker Richards | 5/30/18 2:15am

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Source: Courtesy of Parker Richards / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Believing in a defined Dartmouth is a flaw on our campus and one almost every student sinks into. There are the Dartmouth rampers, those who build up the College to be something it never can fully be: a place of traditions and pong and brotherhood. Then there are the detractors: to them, Dartmouth is ever oppressive, a place of privilege to be dismantled.

But can there ever be a single, unified Dartmouth? Can it be just one thing, one image of itself? Of course not. Perhaps we all know this, but in the day-to-day discussions on campus, that is hardly ever apparent. Dartmouth must be all things to all people while being defined by those same groups as one thing, a monolithic entity that embodies what they see in it (good or ill) and nothing else.

I have seen Dartmouth metastasize and shift; it’s not that the College is a different version of itself to each of its students (though it is), but rather that even to a single student, it is engaged in near-constant evolution. The College in one term is not the same as the College the next. Its spaces change, its peoples shift, its very core strains and evolves.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define the College. As opinion editor at The Dartmouth, much of my job came in defining a vision for the College in the future. We wanted it to focus on undergraduates and the liberal arts. We said the community could help stop sexual misconduct. We argued natural spaces are essential to the Dartmouth character. We believed an enrollment increase would be disastrous. We set out a vision for Dartmouth four years down the line. Of course, the Dartmouth we believed in — small, undergraduate-focused, nature-driven, inclusive and progressive — only exists as a facet of the broader Dartmouth. As a defining idea, it was always a fiction.

In my own life, the College has evolved not just term to term, but almost day to day. I see it in a new light each morning — sometimes as a place of friendship and wonder, othertimes as a lonely, sad blot along the meandering Connecticut. The College of sophomore summer was an isolating experience. The College that traveled with me to London was one of camaraderie and togetherness, an experience that made me a more curious and engaged person — not that my grades were any better.

From one month to the next, from the end of sophomore summer to the beginning of junior fall, there was a shift. Yes, I flew across the North Atlantic. Sea-green behemoths chopped against icebergs in the swell and separated the one from the other. Dartmouth, as a physical place, was behind me. But it was more than that. The College around me shifted, which is really to say that I changed. Perhaps it was being abroad. Perhaps it was being around different people. But there was a seismic alteration in what Dartmouth was for me, a breaking of the monolith.

And when I left London, the College reformed again. And it continued its evolution into my junior spring and thence in to senior year, and it has kept shifting. It will continue to do so, I think, for each new student. Dartmouth has over 6,000 students. It has hundreds of faculty and staff. The College is different to each of those people each day they are part of it. There is not a monolithic Dartmouth but rather an infinite one; if Dartmouth changes each day, for each member of its community, and represents something unique to every one of us, there are about four million Dartmouths each year, almost 200 million Dartmouths since coeducation and close to a billion since the College was born.

I once had a professor passionately tell a class that the College was its own sort of Hell. I’ve also heard people extol the virtues of Dartmouth to the umpteenth degree, talking of the College as if it could do no wrong, as if the only faults the College was capable of were the occasional bad decisions of the Hanlon administration. To say both of these views are wrong should be a truism. To say each is obviously right? That may be just as accurate.

The obvious paradox is that Dartmouth cannot be all things to all people, yet it is a different thing to each of us, a different thing even to us today than it was to us yesterday. This community spends an almost laughable quantity of time arguing not about what it should be but about what it is. We might remember what Alexander Pope once wrote: “What mighty contests rise from trivial things.” And we might all be better off worrying about how we can make the College better, in all its forms, rather than debating ad infinitum what it is today.

I do not know what sort of alumnus I will be: if I’ll be active, if I’ll be uninvolved. I don’t know if I’ll be like my friends’ parents who come back regularly, who would have their young children eat at Everything but Anchovies for the memories at each visit. I don’t know if I’ll be like the senior editor at one of my internships, who graduated in the late 1990s and hadn’t come back to the College since. That’s because I don’t know which of the many Dartmouths I have experienced will be the one that defines my memories of the College. I hope it will be the best of them.