The Importance of the Intangibles

by John Teti | 6/10/03 5:00am

One of the stranger conventions of newspaper writing that I observed while I was an editor at The Dartmouth came from the sports section. Each week, in the Friday issue that previewed the weekend's big game, the sports writers would make a chart listing which team had the advantage in certain categories: defense, offense, passing, running, etc.

The chart varied from game to game, but the final category was always the same. Sure, we can crunch the statistics, the sports guys would say. We're obligated to see which team has stronger tackles or better shooters, but we have our finger on the pulse of something else, a shift in the wind, a boost to team spirit -- the factors that just might tip the balance.

The editors called these factors "intangibles." Every week, they would painstakingly detail them in the newspaper. And inevitably I would ask, how can you make a list of them? They're intangible! (Oh, how the staff loved my literalist brand of humor.)

Of course, the "intangibles" category is the most critical of all, because life does not go by the numbers, nor do we want it to. SATs and GPAs are crude barometers of success (let alone happiness), and thank God we don't have anything better. What fun would there be in that?

Ask the members of graduating class to reminisce about Dartmouth, and each will give you his or her own list of intangibles -- those Dartmouth phenomena that words can only approximate.

My list would include: the exhausted satisfaction of walking out of Robinson Hall at 2:30 a.m. after the paper has gone to press. The bliss of being the only one on the Green during a snowfall in January. The exasperation of the faces I pass on the Green during a snowfall in May.

Be skeptical of those who measure the Dartmouth experience in numbers, as if four years of life could be expressed on a spreadsheet. Each of us in the graduating class emerge from Dartmouth greatly enriched, and not because we did this many extracurricular activities, or wrote a thesis with so many pages.

We are enriched because we have new perspectives. We learned from each other, reaping the intellectual benefits of a student body that came to Dartmouth from a broad range of backgrounds.

We learned from ourselves, testing our limits and living life with a profundity that would have blown our all-knowing minds back in high school. (Of course, this time, we really do know everything.)

And yes, Mom and Dad, that tuition was worth it: we learned in the classroom. Those professors said they were teaching us about phosphorylation and Derrida, but actually they were teaching us how to think. Dirty pool, yes, but that's the only way. You can't just teach someone to assume new perspectives -- the process is too intangible.

There are two sides to intangibility, though. Just as it can expand our perspectives, it can narrow them. Last Monday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission provided the perfect example of the latter. The commission voted to relax media ownership rules, and as a result, already-huge broadcasting conglomerates can make new acquisitions, both on the national and local level.

I mention this vote because it demonstrates that a momentous threat can come from the most intangible source. It's unlikely you've noticed the effects of the new rules yet, nor will you notice them, say, in the next year -- the impact will be purposefully gradual.

Then there will be a day when you ask yourself whether you agree with a candidate's platform, or if you should support an impending war. You might answer "yes" or "no" if you had all the facts -- the stance isn't the issue -- but you'll realize that you don't have access to information that would allow for an informed decision.

Perhaps since we have become such well-connected academics, we think that day won't arrive for us, the college graduates. But our education must have taught us that knowledge shouldn't be a privilege set aside for a select few. Elitism and complacency are culturally destructive forces.

Whether promising or threatening, intangibles carry the same prescription. Seek them out, seize them and act on them. Don't be fooled by the immediacy of the concrete, day-to-day world. In a few years, you won't remember that you had to finish that paper and study for that exam and oh God pay that $3.00 library fee or they won't give me a diploma!

Graduates, take this last opportunity to be among all of your classmates and reflect on the past four years. You'll laugh, shake your head and maybe cry as you recall all the little things that, in retrospect, turned out to be big things. That's the paradox: the intangibles keep coming back to you long after the tangibles have faded away.