Professors: party-school image is no longer realistic

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/17/02 5:00am

As Green Key weekend arrives, with its traditions of drunken revelry and bacchanalian excess, several long-time professors contrasted the reality of life at Dartmouth with what they see as a dated stereotype that ignores the growing diversity of attitudes and behaviors at the College.

Although "Animal House" -- with its toga-party debauchery and cheeky pranks -- is often the phrase most readily associated with Dartmouth in the public imagination, professors who have taught at the College for decades said that this image has been fading for years and has little to do with what Dartmouth is really like.

"In my experience, the public perception of Dartmouth has lagged behind the reality," said history Professor Jere Daniell '55.

People fixate on the Animal House stereotype because of its attractive simplicity and ignore the drastic changes that have recently occurred at Dartmouth, he said.

English Professor William Spengemann contrasted the stereotype with his perception of typical Dartmouth students.

"The stereotypical Dartmouth guy is a big, blond athlete, a self-confident, intentionally informal and unpolished, good-hearted dope and a rough-neck," Spen-gemann said. This image has some basis in reality, he said, but in fact Dartmouth students are far more ambitious, energetic and diverse.

He described seeing a fabulous play written by one of his weaker students, an Alpha Chi Alpha member.

"How many places are there where some frat rat would submit a play in a play-writing competition, let alone win it?" he asked.

History Professor Marysa Navarro said that the Animal House stereotype is based on an even older and more out-dated image. "Before Animal House, there was "Carnival," another movie about partying frat boys," she said. "Animal House just reinforced that earlier idea of Dartmouth."

The same "party boys and party girls" who might appear to conform to the stereotype were some of her best students, she said.

Navarro said that Animal House has had less of an impact on Dartmouth's image than "the fact that for years the College was open to the public when it was a big party weekend or celebration" -- on Homecoming, Winter Carnival or Green Key.

Dartmouth showed its hard-partying side not only to the busloads of girls it brought in from sister schools before the school went coed, but also to the public at large through magazine and newspaper coverage that broadcast these hedonistic weekends around the country and abroad, professors said.

Spengemann described seeing a picture of a Winter Carnival snow sculpture on the front page of the London Times and articles about the Dartmouth party scene in Kansas newspapers.

The professors unanimously denounced the media for perpetuating stereotypes about Dartmouth.

"The national media coverage has always been disappointing. There will be an incident of one kind or another and then a flurry of articles on the behavior of the frats," Navarro said.

Daniell said that the media portrayals of Dartmouth have "focused on the limitations."

Yet the media fascination with Dartmouth persists, largely, professors said, in response to continuing interest.

Professor William Spengemann explained the public fascination with Dartmouth. "It's a name that Americans love to hate because it represents undeserving privilege," he said. "The idea is that Dartmouth students don't deserve the beautiful surroundings and luxurious facilities. If they did, they'd be at Harvard, Yale or Princeton."

But Spengemann and other professors described their students as energetic, intellectually curious, and hardworking.

"Dartmouth students are willing to try anything," Spengemann said.

Anything -- be it making a controversial comment in class, writing a play, or drinking for the duration of Green Key weekend. The image of Dartmouth as a bastion of East-Coast WASP privilege may have been rendered obsolete it seems that the "play hard, party hard," clich endures.