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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Don't Let the Fire Go Out

Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote Dylan Thomas. "... Rage, rage against the dying of the light." While the poem certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the future of the Homecoming bonfire, I think it nicely frames the question I have been asking myself: why are students so quiet about the fate of what is arguably one of our oldest, most universally beloved traditions?

After some 120 years, this year's bonfire, the College has announced, may well be the last. Last year apparently saw large increases in alcohol violations, arrests and vandalism over Homecoming weekend, in particular during the bonfire. Moreover, last year disaster struck at Texas A & M, where 12 students were killed when the bonfire structure that they were helping to build collapsed.

While there certainly were problems here during last year's bonfire, I question how much the events at Texas A & M brought this all to a head. To my memory, people have always been a little stupid at the bonfires -- my freshman year lots of people ran up and tried to touch the burning structure, despite the fact that the temperature in the fire's immediate vicinity was somewhere in the neighborhood of three million degrees. I am still quite surprised none of the fire-touchers burst into flames. While there may have been increases in general mischief last year, I really did not feel like the bonfire itself was out of control. I marched with the band in the Sweep, and I stayed until the fire fell, and I did not see anyone anywhere near the fire who was behaving that stupidly.

That is, while there might have been more problems than usual last year, I do not think that the fire itself was the problem. Generally there are on the order of 8-10,000 people on the green to watch the fire. I think any time you gather that many human beings in one place for several hours, someone will get mugged, someone will have a heart attack, someone will go into labor and so forth. This is just general probability. I think you would see the same problems if you replaced the bonfire with any other event that could draw that many people to the green on a Friday night -- maybe WWF on the Green or something.

I honestly think the larger issue that led to this announcement is simply one of liability -- in the wake of the Texas disaster, no on can afford to have a bonfire go awry. The College probably has a valid point here. In this day and age, everything is about minimizing risk, lest the lawyers gleefully descend on your screw-ups.

Unfortunately many of the pivotal events that got humanity where it is today were big gambles in their time. Sail west to the Indies? Nah, you'd probably get sued by the families of lost mariners. Invent an airplane? Just imagine the class action suit by future generations of passengers whose luggage has been lost. Penicillin? What if someone has an allergic reaction and dies?

While the College is probably correct that a bonfire is a huge risk, my point is that some things are worth it. There are few events that so well epitomize the spirit of the Dartmouth community as the bonfire. One of the things I love most about Dartmouth is how well we work together, and how well we treat one another. Nowhere is this more apparent than in an event in which an entire class joins forces to bring a project to fruition, and then the entire community joins to celebrate the results.

However, all this is not to say that the College should simply suck it up, pay its insurance premiums and hope for the best. Dartmouth is correct to demand some responsibility from all of us for our individual actions at the bonfire, to help make the event as safe as possible for all.

At the fire (just as elsewhere in our lives here), we bear a responsibility to behave as members of a larger community. If you show up at the bonfire and cause trouble, you do so as an individual -- but the entire community pays if the college decides to discontinue the tradition. This year is to be the test of the strength of our community. If every last one of us can enjoy the fire without being out of control -- that is, if we acknowledge that our actions impact the entire community and not just ourselves -- then future classes of Dartmouth students will be able to enjoy the bonfire.

I truly hope that this is the case. I'm not horribly attached to too many of the traditions around here, but to me the bonfire is a wonderful event celebrating the best aspect of our school -- the fabulous community of which we are part. Do your part to make sure we can continue to enjoy this tradition -- or as Thomas would say, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."