Blair: Lest the Old

by Peter Blair | 10/20/11 10:00pm

One of the central facts of being a senior at Dartmouth is that your four years have taught you to take incredibly bizarre Dartmouth phenomena as normal. This has been demonstrated in two principal ways to me over the last year. Firstly, I no longer see anything outlandish whatsoever about people walking around with neon green hair or with spangled pink tights.

Dartmouth has changed me quite a lot in this respect during my time here. I distinctly remember my first sight of H-Croo, and the deep doubts about Dartmouth that it occasioned in my mind. The Dartmouth Aires performance on NBC's "The Sing-Off" confirmed this change for me. One of the judges was amused by the Aires' flair, and I had to remind myself that most people aren't exposed to such sartorial splendor everyday.

Secondly, I now find it perfectly normal even highly significant that every fall a bunch of people in some isolated section of New Hampshire run around a large bonfire. Last year one of my non-Dartmouth friends was baffled upon experiencing the bonfire for the first time. She thought it was an absurd tradition. For my part, I had been so changed by Dartmouth that I found her incomprehension incomprehensible.

Dartmouth changes you. It slowly draws you into the rhythms of its life, to the point where you can predict pretty well when the next controversy over gender relations will erupt, and how soon after that the next controversy over the College's alcohol policy will happen. And it pretty quickly immerses you in its characteristic traditions, and keeps you in them until these traditions almost become part of who you are.

And this is why I love Dartmouth. It is, I think, a thoroughly traditional place. But we must be careful about the word "traditional." Traditional has come to be politicized in American public discourse people generally associate it with the term "conservative" and take it to have certain definite political content.

This is not, however, what I mean when I say Dartmouth is traditional. I mean, rather, that Dartmouth and Dartmouth students seem to understand the importance of the social and communal contexts for individual life. I have no doubt that one can live one's undergraduate life atomistically at some colleges in the country. This means that one can go on largely independent of other people around you and the general campus culture, associating only with your own small, fragmented groups.

At Dartmouth, this is impossible. Even if it's only during the three big weekends a year, most people here have experienced themselves as part of the whole Dartmouth community. Obviously, this is partly due to our smaller size. But I think it's also because we know that individuals are situated in communities and stories larger then themselves. We have a sense of ourselves as part of the Dartmouth story that came before us and will go on after we are gone.

This story is embodied in certain shared practices like the bonfire and the polar bear swim. These traditional practices mark our community and participation in them marks us as part of the communities. We become a part of Dartmouth and Dartmouth becomes a part of us. Dartmouth is not just where I went to school. For this '12, Dartmouth will hereafter be a part of who I am.

All this makes Dartmouth a throughly traditional place, a place constituted by traditions. Back during my college tours in high school, I distinctly remember that my parents and I left a certain New England college with the sense that the place "had no soul." This is not something I could ever say about Dartmouth.

To really love a place is to love it clear-eyed. I have no illusions that Dartmouth is perfect. But Dartmouth with it's communal soul and its traditions has taught me a lot. It has taught me that we never belong just to ourselves, but also to the communities we find ourselves in. It has taught me, to paraphrase the great poet-philosopher Wendell Berry, that once we begin to love a place we are no longer unattached and we are free we can no longer put our life in a box and carry it away.