Well, here we are. From the time that we first ventured on campus as wide-eyed prospective students, eager to swap SAT scores and meet every professor we could find, sophomore summer has dangled in front of us like keys in front of an infant. Now that time has come. Everyone in our classes looks at least vaguely familiar, dining options have been reduced to a precious few, lines to play pong are more manageable, and we are slightly more inclined to go hiking than we otherwise would be.
As anyone familiar with Dartmouth's history can tell you, the administration created sophomore summer in a rather crafty move to accommodate women by increasing enrollment without building new dorms. Today, most would say that sophomore summer offers a more informal, experimental learning experience where time slows down, classes are less serious and school is more enjoyable.
Even so, sophomore summer serves a much more basic -- and important -- purpose: providing a shared, collective experience.
While this fact may seem obvious, shared experiences are rather novel in the field of academia. Increasingly, colleges are eliminating distribution requirements and allowing students to take all classes with pass/fail options (looking at you, Brown.) Traditional tracts of studies are falling out of fashion in favor of design-your-own-major sequences of study. Students are invited to direct their own learning, often in isolation. Collective activities are few and extremely optional. Great books are shunned. The cities that surround urban schools allow students to live completely dissimilar lives and can reduce student involvement in the university to merely attending lectures. Even shared class attendance is being usurped by the advent of online classes. The future of academia lies not in the communal ideal of the liberal arts, but rather in the facelessness of mass-produced degrees.
What sets Dartmouth apart is the tremendous bond students seem to have for the school and each other: a bond rooted in the solidarity of shared experiences. Even if freshmen DOC trips don't help you learn anything new about Dartmouth, camping or the DOC, they give students something that we instantly have in common with one another. Without that "Hey how are you? What trip were you on? How did you like it?" getting to know people would be a more difficult process.
The academic argument behind making English majors more "well-rounded" by forcing them to take a science class with a lab is that there is certain knowledge that should be shared by all students. But even if that were not the case, there is solidarity forged through mutual strife. Complaining about distribution requirements is an effective way to strike a bond with people because you know that they have gone through the same thing as well.
The same wisdom applies to other aspects of College life. Many see Hanover's remoteness as a curse. But by being "trapped inside," as it were, students are forced to come into more contact with each other, live similar lives, share some of the same joys, pains and aspirations and forge the strong connections to Dartmouth and each other that define what the College is all about. Is that not why we're supposed to shout the line "lest the old traditions fail" when we sing the Alma Mater? Not that I'm speaking from experience, but wouldn't the ties of brother and sisterhood be less strong without pledge term?
In his inaugural speech to the College, President Freedman presented his vision for Dartmouth and offered the following quote, which still retains a certain unhealthy popularity with a number of Dartmouth's faculty: "We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry, or mastering the cello, or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus." With the exception of scientific specialties, our majors and course selections will have little relevance after graduation. The only thing we will be left with are the connections and the memories we forge by living together. When it comes to building wealth and happiness, these memories and connections are critical.
There are those who idealize Freedman's vision of students placed together but existing alone, who do not believe in the benefits of community or at least suffering together; such an ideal is self-defeating. It doesn't build a Dartmouth worth attending. It doesn't present a Dartmouth worth investing in. And it doesn't offer a Dartmouth worth remembering.