Anyone who attended the Homecoming bonfire this year will know that the College, in accordance with what is apparently an annual theme, has increased its efforts to tame and domesticate the event. The distance between the bystanders and the runners was much larger than in previous years and was enforced at intervals by water barriers. Safety and Security officers were much more vigilant about preserving the boundary between runners and bystanders one friend informed me that the group he was with was threatened with arrest if they jumped into the circle and ran with the freshmen. I know of at least one person who was chided at length by a College official for shouting negative comments. He was told, "We're trying to make this a more positive event."
In a message to the Dartmouth community, Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson ratified this new positive tone: "To the Class of 2016: You are already valued members of the Dartmouth community. Participation in the first-year sweep and/or any other activity surrounding [the] bonfire does not make you more or less a member. As you will discover, there are many activities during Homecoming weekend. Make the experience your own." Johnson's email stops mercifully short of advocating non-participation, but the force of her words clearly leans in that direction. The freshmen responded in five years of attending the bonfire, I have never seen such low participation. Twenty to 30 minutes into the event, only a relatively small band of intrepid '16s remained.
I should be clear that I think there have certainly been excessively cruel practices associated with the bonfire in the past, especially those that involved physical contact. If College administrators succeed in limiting these excesses, I will be the first to congratulate them. But it seems manifestly clear to me that the College's attempts to interfere with this event regrettably surpass such reasonable and modest reforms.
One could make the usual complaints about such a policy. For example, everyone '16s included should know that the upperclassmen do not for one second mean any insult or negative comment that they make. When I was a freshman, I appreciated the heckling from the upperclassmen because I knew they spoke out of affection and not genuine malice or condescension. This follows logically. Either the hecklers knew me or they didn't. Those who didn't know me couldn't possibly have made any actual personal judgment about my character, and those who did know me at that point in my freshman year were all friends and acquaintances of mine whom I knew liked and respected me. So taking the insults "personally" or "to heart" wouldn't have made sense, which is why I have never actually met anyone who did.
But suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that the random negative comments that the upperclassmen direct toward the freshman actually do make an impression on them. Suppose that when a freshman is told he or she "sucks" or is part of the "worst class ever," said freshman takes these comments seriously. Is this necessarily a bad thing? In a cultural moment when elite college students are ceaselessly and pervasively lauded with proclamations of their own greatness, the last thing we should be lamenting is the occasional attempt to impart some humility by reminding ourselves that, in certain qualified, relevant senses that will vary from person to person, we all do in fact suck. Only according to the banal nostrums of the self-esteem movement is criticism necessarily harmful to a person's ego. A second, much saner school of thought recognizes that true healthy self-image will require humility a proper recognition of those things that are good about oneself and those areas of one's moral and intellectual life that could use improvement.
The College administration is understandably and correctly concerned at this moment with looking tough on hazing, but it should not take their frustration with real hazing out on the bonfire tradition. Social rituals like the bonfire exist to channel potentially hurtful or dangerous human emotions into relatively harmless social outlets. Cracking down on public, harmless, well-managed events like the bonfire is not a way of reducing hazing, but a way of ensuring that ever more extreme forms of hazing will metastasize, unseen and hidden, throughout the student body.
Peter Blair '12 is a former staff columnist.