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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Origin of Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Imagine for a moment that you are walking down Webster Avenue in short sleeves after losing a fracket that you could have sworn had been tied to six others. You are awaiting the warmth of Novack, which you will duck into for respite on your journey home. Maybe the shorts you wore for the beach-themed party were not the best decision you have ever made. You think, “Vox clamantis in deserto” or, in English, “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” Why did you ever fall in love with a college in the frigid woods? Your college counselor must have forgotten to mention that New Hampshire winters may be beautiful, but they are not for the faint of heart … or the fracket-less. The school motto, you think, is surely designed to describe this very moment. You do not know who penned such a phrase for the sweatshirts you have seen around campus, but surely it must have been on the long journey from Collis to Chi Heorot.

Though the interpretation of the school motto may change over time, the phrase has religious roots. In fact, the motto is almost as old as the school itself. For some background, Dartmouth was founded in 1769 as a result of King George III’s approval of a charter for an institution to educate Native American youth. Its goals were very much in line with colonial ideologies of “enlightening” the original inhabitants through Christianity and Western civilization. The founder, Eleazar Wheelock, a clergyman from Connecticut, was very much impassioned by this objective.

When Wheelock built the College in New Hampshire, the landscape was an uninhabited, untouched forest of pine trees. Wheelock’s motives were very much religious. In 1773, when the original seal was adopted, “Vox clamantis in deserto” was included, as it appears five times in the Bible. Most relevant is its use in Isaiah 40:3, which reads in the English Standard Bible as, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Given the dense forest setting of the original campus and the Native Americans he deemed “wild,” Wheelock might have found particular meaning in this biblical quote that he could apply to his greater mission of serving the Lord.

In the original seal, the words seem to emerge from a light shining onto seemingly naked figures wearing what look like feathers on their heads. These figures are walking up the hill, upon which is a College building. This particular arrangement prompted Jonathan Good ’94 to write a term paper for a “History of New England” course, which was published in the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin in 1997. He argues that the seal served as effective propaganda, a way for trustees to idealize and justify their nascent institution. However, he notes that this depiction was never honest, because despite Wheelock’s mission and seal depiction, Native Americans were a minority even in the beginning years of the College.

However, as time has passed, the motto has taken on new, perhaps more genuine meanings for individual students.

“Essentially, it means that our identity is our voice, and if we’re crying out, we’re choosing to make it heard as opposed to just existing,” Evelyn Eichler ’19 said. “We are making our presence known and transforming these intrinsic voices into action.”

Cate Heisler ’20 focused more on the community as whole.

“It represents us students as independent beings who have been placed in an environment that encourages us to reach out to one another,” Heisler said.

Jordan McDuffie ’20 gave an explanation more rooted in the physical location of the College.

“I think it means that despite being in the middle of nowhere we’re still relevant,” McDuffie said.

Alas, while the motto might accumulate different meanings through the passage of time, it is rooted in a colonial, Christian message of civilizing native peoples. In this way, it is arguably better that students today remember the roots of the institution, but rewrite the motto’s meaning as they see fit. Perhaps, a more inclusive interpretation better represents the spirit of Dartmouth today.