Verbum Ultimum: Don’t Touch the Fire

Tradition will fail if the Dartmouth community doesn’t start acting responsibly.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 10/12/18 2:15am

Dartmouth is full of beloved traditions, and the Homecoming bonfire every fall reigns as one of the most sacred and celebrated. The bonfire saw its first flames over a century ago, and every year since has welcomed home a new class with warm and open arms. Dartmouth alumni, no matter where they end up, return home en masse to pay their alma mater a visit. Amidst shouts of “Touch the fire!” and “Worst class ever!,” it sends the message to the newest members of the Dartmouth community that her spell on them truly is enduring. 

Not everyone views the bonfire with such fondness, however. In recent years, Dartmouth has received pushback from the town of Hanover, which has raised major safety concerns to the forefront of the discussion surrounding the bonfire. It’s not surprising why officials might be more concerned about the event given its recent history — in 2016, an estimated 50 or so students tried to touch the fire, and last Homecoming, even with a chainlink fence and a water-filled plastic barrier, three students were caught for touching the fire. Clearly, students have pushed their luck to the limit — and if the Dartmouth community doesn’t answer at least some of Hanover’s concerns, they have the bonfire to pay for it. 

In May, the town announced that it would not grant the College an outdoor activities permit for the Homecoming bonfire. After negotiations, the College agreed to present a redesigned proposal to Hanover officials after the administration convened. Since then, both the bonfire and the event as a whole have been revamped. The bonfire will now be 28 feet tall instead of 33 feet, a change designed to maximize the chances that it will collapse inward in a worst-case scenario. The event has also been redesigned to be more visible to spectators — the fire will be lit before students arrive, there will be a large tent with food and music, and speeches will be delivered from Dartmouth Hall. 

The biggest change, and perhaps the one that students are the most riled up about, is that students will no longer be able to run laps around the bonfire. Instead, first-year students will march one lap around the fire before heading off to Dartmouth Hall for a class photo. News of this change has ignited reactions from current students and recent alumni, for whom running laps around the bonfire and dares to touch the fire are as much a part of the tradition of Homecoming as the bonfire itself. 

Amongst these incendiary reactions, however, the Dartmouth community overlooks the miracle that the College will still construct the bonfire at all. Moreover, this tradition is not about running laps while being egged on by alumni or showing off through dare-devil behavior — these are only recent developments in its lifetime. More important is how the bonfire celebrates the uniqueness, strength and endurance of our collective identity. It’s meant to bring the Dartmouth community together to welcome the newest class into the family, and signify to first-years that they have become a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Traditions depend on the communities to which they belong to keep them alive, making Dartmouth students new and old responsible for their longevity. However, the attempts to touch the bonfire have made it an increasingly unsafe and unruly affair over the last several years.  Dartmouth students must realize that they cannot play with fire and still run off unscathed. Without safety precautions in place, the bonfire has the potential to be deadly. In 1999, 12 students died when a bonfire collapsed at Texas A&M University. Dartmouth is not above tragedy — if an accident were to happen, Homecoming would no longer carry the spirit and excitement that it has for the past 130 years.

Many members of this community are promoting dangerous and petulant behavior that could cost Dartmouth a century-old tradition. Upperclassmen and alumni must realize that pushing first-years to touch the fire is putting members of this community in harm’s way. There are very real consequences that this community may face if they fail to honor the tradition with respect. 

The College can do everything in its power to convince the town to keep the bonfire going forward, but it ultimately depends on Dartmouth students and alumni to ensure the longevity of this tradition. The outrage that the recent changes to the bonfire have ignited demonstrates just how much the Dartmouth community has begun to lose sight of the true value of Homecoming. Rather than centering this tradition around reckless endangerment, Homecoming is a night to celebrate the power of the connections that have been cultivated on this campus. It’s time to reevaluate where collective values lie — or risk letting the old traditions fail.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.