Cook: Not Your House System

by Caroline Cook | 6/29/18 2:25am

“I’m really glad we’re in South House,” a friend said in passing during Orientation last fall. “The black scarves match everything.” As excited as we were to discover that our randomly-assigned free accessories would match nearly everything in our wardrobes, the color of those scarves were the only real thing we knew about the House Communities into which we had been thrust.

That perception wouldn’t really change much, even after a full year at the College. The House Communities have no real identity. What is the difference between South House and School House and East Wheelock House, besides number of syllables and a scarf color? The living situation certainly isn’t equal; East Wheelock has arguably better dorms than South, but South may have a better location (with the notorious exception of The Lodge). And while students quickly come to associate these things with the bright orange or the black or the baby blue, they’re not an identity, not really.

The College community can’t even settle on a name for House Center A. The structure itself feels temporary, as does a name as generic as that. But should we call it “The Onion” or “The Clove” or any of the other names one might hear tossed around? Names are an important first step towards developing an identity, and the obvious first part of that is agreeing on one name.

Furthermore, today’s House Communities are going to continue evolving in more tangible ways. Their names, for example — currently just the street that the House Professor’s home is located on — may change in the near future as donors sponsor House Communities. Students may have heard chants of “West House, Best House” — clever wordplay if there ever was any — but there may be no real point in deliberately garnering House pride if the name will change in a few years.

Peer institutions with successful housing structures demonstrate that this crazy system that rocked the worlds of the Classes of 2018 and 2019 isn’t actually that original of an idea — and that it is possible for it to be a successful endeavor (Harvard, Princeton and Yale all have distinct versions of this similar concept, but theirs existed a little before 2016). Some argue that the issue with the House Communities’ lack of identities is that they’re composed of random groups of students and by definition cannot have one common personality. However, allowing students to select their House Communities would wind up creating little more than massive Living Learning Communities: South House, across the street from the gym and abutting the Hopkins Center for the Arts, is objectively more convenient for the athletes and theater majors. The House Community system was not set up with the intention of creating athlete dorms or major-specific havens. That said, uniqueness can prevail even among randomly sorted groups of students, but those students will need to enthusiastically create something unique if they’d like to see it done today.

Identity takes time to develop, as do traditions. When the College announced the new housing structure, the intent to uproot at least a fraction of the deeply ingrained Greek culture on campus was clear, if never explicit. They were also intended to give incoming students an instant community with which to identify, as well as a so-called “home base” to return to during the roller coaster that is the D-Plan. Although the House Communities aren’t instantly replacing the social circles they set out to infiltrate, don’t assume the project is a failure. The House Communities aren’t for the Class of 2020, or even for the Class of 2022. They’re for the Dartmouth of the future.

Students are surrounded by reminders of Dartmouth’s long history, constantly reframing the way they think of themselves as heirs to a school that existed long before them — 249 years, to be exact. But it’s sometimes harder to remember that students are also a part of the Dartmouth that will exist long after them. In 100 years, or even 50, the world will look very different, as will this community. Social structure, tradition, identity — these are concepts that take a long time to blossom. That said, this is an interesting and rare opportunity for students to remind themselves where they stand in the vast world of Dartmouth. Does the College want to be Animal House? Does it want to be the crunchy, quirky, often-forgotten but endearing Ivy? Maybe some students are just wishing for the days of Alpha Delta fraternity to return and see the House Communities as a threatening step towards abolishing the Greek system. Regardless of what students hope for the future of the College, if it’s different than the Dartmouth they are seeing at this moment, then it’s up to them to shape it.

So, perhaps the House Communities aren’t for the students of today, but the lessons about being parts of a whole this situation can teach them may be far more valuable than a house structure that knows the difference between East Wheelock and School.