First Year Folly
Late last month, The Dartmouth reported that the Committee on the First-YearExperience was planning to recommend changing the name of the entering class from "Freshmen" to "First-Year Students." Since then the committee has been silent.
Unless this report was leaked, the committee needs to rethink its public relations strategy. Its suggestion was met with laughs, skepticism and irritation. But can the public be blamed? A committee meets for months, and aside from "looking into" freshman dorms, the only thing it comes up with is changing the name of what it is studying.
The laughs came because in the end it is silly to see grown men and women with a serious task come out and make such a trivial suggestion. The skepticism stems from the fact that changing the name of freshmen will not make anyone smarter, more intellectually zealous, or more quickly adjusted. Lastly, people seem to be irritated that their valuable tuition dollars are being spent heading up a committee doing the equivalent of deciding wether to call a rose a rose or a violet-colored flower of pleasant scent.
From personal experience, it seems that freshmen don't mind being called freshmen. Not only does it follow in the natural sophomore-junior-senior order of things, but the students seem to feel it is an accurate and time-honored title.
Literally, freshman of course breaks down into "fresh" and "man." "Fresh" (if you accept the white-male canonized Oxford English) means "newly made or obtained," and "man" means "human beings in general," or "a human male as distinguished from woman or boy." Strictly speaking, then, the title is an accurate one. There seems to be no semantic contradiction between what freshmen are and what the name suggests.
The other avenues of approach are that "freshmen" has negative connotations and that it contains the word "man" not "person" etc., thus marginalizing women. Firstly, freshmen have gotten whatever connotations have come to them because of what they are and because of their actions, not because of the name that they are assigned. Clueless freshmen I am sure will eagerly make the transition to clueless first-years, if you even think that the student body will go along with adopting the change into usage. It is a classic yet faulty strategy to blame shortcomings on titles and not on substance.
As for the gender issue, approximately the same logic follows. Although it is a rather poetic idea of an intelligent young woman barely able to breathe under the weight of male oppression that is so pervasive it even surfaces in what she is called, we can save that for a good radical-feminist novel. Mainstream feminism does not allege this.
Firstly, I earnestly believe that very few people give a second thought to the precise breakdown of the word, and if they do, it is just in passing. It is self-apparent that whenever "man" or "men" is used in situations meant to indicate "human beings in general," women are progressing quickly enough to see the meaning of the word change, so that now it is truly coming to mean "human beings in general," losing any imparted concept of gender in these contexts. In any event, women will only have to put up with the title for a year. Then they'll become sophomores.
As an aside, the word sophomore actually has negative connotations built into it, meaning "wise fool." This, I maintain, is the cause of my 3.0 grade point average last Fall.
There are two reasons in the end why 'shmen should be 'shmen. The first is that the costs for changing the names of the departments as well as all their stationery and publications are prohibitive. Put that money directly into revamping the phone system and the computer network.
In addition, it is always important to be clear and incisive in efforts at problem solving and evaluation. Suggesting that the College change the name of its freshmen does what all poorly reasoned arguments do: it misses the heart of the issue, the pivotal point. The issue is drunk freshmen vomiting in the hallways of their dorms. It is freshmen stuck inside on Fridays whose only viable social option is to try to sneak into a fraternity. It is preparing high school students to undertake the biggest intellectual and social endeavor of their lives to date.
None of this happens because they are called freshmen and not something else. Not only will a name change prove ineffectual, but the time, effort, and money expended in conjuring it up and enacting it will prove wasted.