Boots and Rallies

by Aaron Pellowski | 9/25/14 6:24pm

“Son of a Gun” is a Dartmouth drinking song that’s managed to survive into the 21st century through the repertoires of a cappella groups and oddball enthusiasts. It’s also a favorite of mine, primarily because it’s basically a song about beer, which, along with my girlfriend and “Seinfeld,” constitute the only three things that give my wretched life any meaning. “Son of a Gun” is a joyful panegyric on fun and festivity — “Let every honest fellooooow / Drink his glass of hearty cheeeeeer! / For I’m a student of old Dartmouth and a son of a gun for beer!”

The lyrics ignite sepia-tinted memories of a world that died before I was born, in which all undergraduates entered with a mastery of Latin and Greek, firm values and enough sense to recoil in disbelief were they to ever encounter a time-traveling ambassador from our decade, tasked with explaining the phenomenon of the selfie. You can imagine these fellows, arm-in-arm, gathered around a fireplace after final examinations, smoking pipes and heaving flagons of ale to the ceiling, hearts ablaze with the joy of camaraderie uninterrupted by the soul-sucking sorcery of Twitter and BuzzFeed quizzes.

The energetic climax surges as the singer announces, “And if I had a son, sir / I tell you what he’d do! / He’d yell ‘To hell with Harvard!’ like his daddy used to do!” At which point in my fantasy, the song repeats three or four more times until its singers collapse, happily wasted into leather armchairs, dreaming of European art and love untainted by Taylor Swift’s interpretation of the human condition.

The “to hell with Harvard” bit is quite titillating, though. I conjecture that this sentiment is a fossil from such older days of the Ivy League, before the haunting Princeton Review rankings, the multimillion-dollar admissions industry, CollegeConfidential.com, the College Board and the hordes of status-anxious parents. It was a time when feelings of difference among colleges amounted to little more than friendly rivalries to be settled on the football field, or perhaps the occasional jibe at a Yale man’s assumed cocaine usage and closeted homosexuality.

Nowadays, it’s a gross truth that the name of the Ivy League is no longer about sports, but an empty arthropodal husk, a hollow encrustation of “prestige.” The lucky members simultaneously enjoy the insane entitlement and opportunities of the Ancient Eight while suffering from niggling embarrassment and awkwardness when asked about their privileged schooling by interlocutors hailing from the real world. What no one seems to talk much about is the internal complex of resentment of inferiority within the Ivy League itself. Sure, Harvard made a very funny video lampooning Yale, but it would have been somehow cruel to target Penn, Brown or any of the other “Fivies.”Isn’t it hard enough to suffer the indignity of attending a Tier-Two Ivy League school without the added sting?

No. Get over yourself.

If you’ve spent anytime at Dartmouth, you’ve likely either overheard or partaken in some kind of degrading, anti-Harvard fanfare. Before I even went on freshman trips, I was surprised in Collis by the Welcome Croo with a choreographed, musical announcement “There isn’t going to be any four-hour safety talk. That is some Harvard shit!” as part of a snappy song-and-dance routine spoofing Kesha’s “Blow.” In a philosophy seminar, a student openly derided the Harvard-based author of a paper we had read, unaware that our professor attended undergrad there.

These are not isolated incidents. Much like the burrito that was disemboweled and deposited in my backpack, by a vicious classmate of mine in seventh grade English while I was on the can, the Harvard Shmarvard fanfare seems to be everywhere — it stinks, and it persists.

This bogus junk is not just almost always baseless and uncreative — it’s embarrassing. After all, Anti-Harvard (and anti-Yale, Princeton, Stanford, to a much lesser extent) jabber is motivated, with few exceptions, by an entrenched cultural inferiority complex. Dartmouth is substantially populated by Harvard rejects who have not learned how to cope with disappointment in a mature fashion. We need to realize that college admissions and rankings are a chaotic circus of baloney. Instead of nursing our bruised egos with sniggering digs at Harvard, we should grasp the opportunity to critically examine how we build our identities and how much we rely on external sources for validation.

I don’t so much blame Dartmouth students as I do the larger structures that have inculcated into them what I think are some really crumby values, and administrative forces who haven’t done much to sustain Dartmouth’s integrity as a liberal arts institution, choosing instead to pander to a perceived need to keep Dartmouth competitive.

A competitive spirit, when exercised virtuously, is healthy. But the way things are, it’s not healthy. This kind of rancid competition nurtures class after class of public school valedictorians who delight in soothing their supposedly second-rate achievements by perpetuating an elaborate culture of obnoxious ressentiment (that’s the French word for having a stick up your ass). In doing so, they perpetuate the very ideas that dub their achievements “second-rate” in the first place. Would it be so much to ask for Dartmouth students to chill out a little, and reflect on the enormous blessing of getting to take classes here at all?

This seems like a lesson that could go far in improving all our characters in the long run. I’m not saying that we should ignore our emotions when we feel like we’ve failed or disappointed ourselves, but masking them with sardonic vitriol is a far worse solution than stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, sizing up what you don’t have with what you want out of life and maybe realizing that everything’s fine. Some of us will never experience rejection or failure, but most of us will. There are smart, honest, authentic ways of coping with these basic human experiences, but I cannot love anyone who makes a habit of transmuting frustration into pathetic resentment, nor any group that makes it a tradition.

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