In Silence, a Cry for Change

by Helen Horan | 10/3/18 2:05am

One of the most emblematic and accurate descriptions of our school can be found in its motto: “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” or “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” Yet the phrase is rarely given much attention or thought, perhaps dismissed as an archaic Latin idiom that fails to inspire students. Forgotten and unacknowledged, the motto fades into obscurity and silence. Yet it is silence itself to which the motto so powerfully alludes. “A voice crying out in the wilderness” speaks to the silence of Dartmouth’s isolation, but also the impulse our community has to fill that quiet space with ideas, conversations and culture.  

Although the meaning of the motto has evolved over time, it originated as a biblical reference. The College was founded as an institution to evangelize and educate Native Americans about the English way of life. Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock chose a phrase that appears five times in the Bible to strengthen the school’s commitment to religion and also highlight its endless green setting. Though the motto has its roots with 18th-century Christian men, it is our duty to change the meaning of the motto in tandem with the changing culture of the school. 

Dartmouth’s secluded location and intimate relationship with the wilderness create a serene setting. There is the quiet fall of crisp dead leaves, the gentle hum of bike wheels turning and the weighty silence of white snow that begins to blanket our campus in November. At times, it feels like this school has a silence that can penetrate bones, and loneliness is not an uncommon experience. Yet silence also allows us to be tranquil and reflective; it inspires interrogation within ourselves. And these moments of stillness are best found in the wilderness. The College is not just close to nature, it is part of it: the river, the Organic Farm and Occom Pond are popular favorites where campus merges with the wilderness. Maybe it is worth taking a walk around College Park in the morning or the golf course late at night sometime to let the woody campus encompass you. 

The quiet wilderness offers a setting in need of sound, and the Dartmouth community provides just that. Robert Crawford ’22 speaks to this duty of ours: “As intellectuals and members of this powerful community, we must not only be the voice crying out, but also the ones responding to a voice in need and making change.” 

Silence should not stifle us: rather, it should inspire us to speak up. Aspire to be that “voice calling out,” whether it pertains to social issues, environmental change or ‘53 Commons preferences. College is an opportunity to exist on the outskirts of the world for a bit, away from the control of one’s family and the demands of a career. It is a chance to really contemplate ideas, explore topics that pique your interest and find that thing that makes you feel as if you must “call out.” 

“We are the epicenter of a lot of things happening in New Hampshire,” said Isabella Chao ’22. She referenced both political activism and scientific research on campus as examples of Dartmouth’s dynamic presence. “People don’t really speak up sometimes, and I feel like colleges like Dartmouth have the ability to speak out and spread ideas. We can be the voice in the silence of society,” Chao said.   

There is something oddly encouraging about a remote location. While in a city it is difficult to escape noise and competition, here at Dartmouth students are given ample resources and room to let their voices be heard. While we have the opportunity to participate in big city internships during off terms, our time in Hanover allows us to make a more personal and perceivable difference. Students can grow their own food at the Organic Farm, become deeply involved with a project or protest the status quo. 

Other individuals found the motto alluded more readily to our intellectual pursuit as students. Jean Fang ’20 thinks it refers to academic success and the pursuit of the greater things in life. Perhaps “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” could suggest scientific discovery and the desire to find truths in the world. 

The “voice calling out in the wilderness” is not that of one individual, but of the whole Dartmouth community. The motto is an acute reminder of the potential this isolated location provides for intellectual discovery and personal expression. We should remember to embrace the wilderness and let our words pierce the silence.