Verbum Ultimum: Let the Old Traditions Change

Dartmouth's traditions need not be immutable.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 10/26/18 2:04am

The earliest signs of the Homecoming tradition go back to the era of William Jewett Tucker’s presidency at Dartmouth in the 1890s. Back then, the College had weekly student body meetings that were known as “Rhetoricals,” which took place in the Old Chapel of Dartmouth Hall. By 1895, the student body population grew too large for the Old Chapel, and “Dartmouth Night,” the tradition we know today, took root. Dartmouth Night was an opportunity for members of the Dartmouth community “to devote an evening to the traditions and glory of Dartmouth, and to stimulate pride in her achievements, and strengthen the purpose that the present and the future of the college shall be worthy of its past,” as the Congressional Record and New Hampshire Journal wrote in 1896.

The original Dartmouth Night tradition did not include the Homecoming bonfire — nor did it even include the Homecoming football game. It wasn’t until 1962 that Dartmouth Night was even referred to as “Home-coming Day” by The Dartmouth for the first time. Over the course of more than a century, what started off as a serious gathering known as “Rhetoricals” phased out to make room for the blazing and energetic Homecoming bonfire tradition of the modern day. Yet the original sentiment behind the event still remains. The purpose of Dartmouth Night is and has always been to bring the Dartmouth community together to celebrate its collective identity and revel in Dartmouth pride.

Recent reactions to the changes made to the Homecoming bonfire suggest that the Dartmouth community seems to view these changes as threats to the legitimacy of the tradition itself, without realizing that change does not have to be antithetical to tradition. If the College had not made changes to the structure of the Homecoming bonfire this year, the town of Hanover would not have allowed the bonfire at all. What many fail to see is that change, in fact, facilitates the longevity of traditions; without change, traditions cannot keep up with the evolution of the institutions and the world at large to which they belong.

Members of the Dartmouth community tend to falsely assume aspects of the Dartmouth experience to be more ingrained in “tradition” than they really are. The College has facilitated many changes in the social spheres on campus in the past several years — the hard alcohol ban, the housing community system, the first-year Greek house ban — that ignited strong reactions at the time of their implementation. Today, however, these changes have molded themselves into the new status quo without sacrificing the role of social spaces on campus in building community. It is not only expected, but necessary, that change will ultimately happen for the better without collapsing the foundations of the Dartmouth experience.

Most traditions of the College’s past look vastly different in their modern forms; some traditions have been lost to history because they no longer fit the Dartmouth of today. With change being inevitable, it is crucial to keep in mind that Dartmouth must progress in a direction that will improve the experiences of its current and future students. Traditions that continue to further harmful power dynamics and entitlement that this institution has passed down must not remain as they are. Change must happen with the goal of including a greater diversity of voices in the collective Dartmouth experience and making room for students who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented to create their own traditions.

Our traditions make us who we are. If Dartmouth wants to be an inclusive, progressive and inspiring community, the traditions it holds dear must reflect that. Dartmouth can still retain the core of its purpose and identity with change — and that purpose and identity may evolve as Dartmouth’s values evolve as well. The shifting values of American society in the ’70s pressured the institution to shift its own values toward diversity and social equality. Dartmouth grew into itself when it finally recommitted itself to its chartered mission to educate Native American youth, and when it finally opened its doors to women. Prior to the College’s expansion to include more identities into the Dartmouth narrative, it would have been hard to believe that one of the institution’s core values is that it “embraces diversity with the knowledge that it significantly enhances the quality of a Dartmouth education.” In today’s Dartmouth, however, through the emergence of new traditions, academic departments, events and social spaces that celebrate and provide community for historically marginalized and underrepresented students, the College is beginning to see this value take tangible form.

Dartmouth needs to change and has always been changing. Long-lasting and valuable traditions survive because they are fluid. They have evolved to fit the climate of today, just as they will continue to evolve to fit the climate of tomorrow.

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