Brown: On the Old

Traditions are timeless; our customs are not.

by Matthew Brown | 10/6/17 1:00am

This column was featured in the 2017 Homecoming Issue.

Most, if not all, of the world’s great legacies are steeped in tradition. Our predisposition to tradition is what enables constitutions and government, what permits the formation of scientific paradigms and what directs the passing down and flourishing of timeless stories and art. Tradition also has led to great suffering and mindless bureaucracy. At Dartmouth, we are familiar with the many benefits and pitfalls of observing tradition. During this Homecoming season, it is important that we remember why we observe the traditions of Homecoming and what such actions and rituals mean in an ever-changing world.

The trouble with tradition arises when ritual and dogma begin to outweigh meaning and value. Traditions fail when they are unmoored from their wisdom or when the wisdom backing them is proven wrong. Because we live in a world of change and because our forerunners are as fallible as we are, it’s important to constantly interrogate the ritual and observance of every tradition we engage in. We cannot simply rely on posterity to justify rituals that prove harmful or unjust.

Dartmouth is no stranger to these discussions — nearly every tradition at Dartmouth has either been criticized, abolished, protested or changed. It’s no secret that many within the College resisted coeducation in 1972; Dartmouth saw intense pushback after its decision to retire its Native American mascot, the Dartmouth Indian, in 1974. That the Indian head can still be spotted on campus is a testament to the stubbornness of tradition at such a storied institution.

These customs weren’t stopped for the sake of abolition but rather interrogated to see how each aligns with the mission and values that it rests upon. Upon review, many of our past decisions did not hold up to the test of time, and we revised them. The evolution of this campus due to internal and external pressures is the reason why Dartmouth remains one of the most influential colleges in the country.

This Homecoming, as thousands descend on Hanover to enjoy the community that has been established here, it is important to remember why we engage in these rituals. Aside from simply for the fun of it, there is little inherently valuable to running around a giant pillar of fire. If a random guy constructed the same bonfire in a random field and ran around it 121 times, his motives would likely be questioned. The value of the bonfire is not in the ritual itself, but instead, in the bonding it helps to facilitate.

Dartmouth excels in these bonding activities. The Twilight Ceremony that each entering class participates in during Orientation is a perfect example. There is little meaning to the action of lighting candles and walking across campus, but there is meaning to the sense of place and community the ritual embodies by connecting the freshmen to the recent graduates. The ceremony also bonds the freshmen and is a worthwhile tradition as a community building exercise.

Homecoming is a time for current students, parents and decades of alumni and friends of the College to welcome the freshman class into the Dartmouth community. It’s a time for the freshmen to build lifelong bonds between each other and for older classes to renew and deepen their connections. The Homecoming bonfire has proven an invaluable focal point for our community, one that after criticism still maintains its merit.

A word of caution, however, for our current traditions: Though the wisdom of a tradition can simply be the joy it brings, when tradition becomes unsustainable or dangerous its utility will inevitably be revisited. Unless current trends change, the Winter Carnival snow sculpture may become a casualty of climate change and student apathy. Both Green Key and Homecoming are traditions that, due to the rowdiness that often accompanies these weekends, are under fire from residents of Hanover and the Upper Valley. Should we forget the communal purpose of the “big weekends” and instead only observe their debauchery, I’m not sure our neighbors or the College will let us continue.

It’s also important to recognize that few, if any, of our traditions are as old as the College. The “Dartmouth Night” bonfire only became an official practice in 1895, having been practiced sporadically after various sports victories before that. The Twilight Ceremony dates back even earlier. This spring, Programming Board will bring the sixth official Green Key concert, a strong addition to Green Key, a festival that has little reason to exist other than for our collective revelry. The festival has lost many of its original traditions since its inception in the 1940s. Times change; traditions adapt. This isn’t something to fear or revile. In fact, we’ve been changing our practices and customs since we began observing them.

I reiterate that tradition is important, invaluable even, to the success of our Dartmouth community and larger society. The College’s history is what makes it distinct, and our traditions are how we honor that. As we celebrate and observe, let’s focus on the reasons behind the traditions. We can still revel in fun, but we should learn from the ceremonies and understand the place and power of our rituals and wisdom. If we never lose sight of the reason behind our traditions, then they will never fail and future generations will be better because of it.