Verbum Ultimum: Students of History

Undergraduates must rediscover the history of Dartmouth.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/8/19 1:55am

Dartmouth enters a tumultuous time as it celebrates 250 years of world-class instruction this winter. The College grapples with a widespread culture of sexual assault, intense competition for prestige from larger research universities, divisive proposals to expand the student body, beleaguered traditions like the Homecoming bonfire and perennial questions of diversity. History is in the making — these are the times that will determine Dartmouth’s legacy and identity for generations to come. 

Dartmouth’s student body has a responsibility to lead the College through this critical period of change and write a brighter chapter of Dartmouth’s history. Yet as far-reaching debates over Dartmouth’s future as a liberal arts college continue in earnest, Dartmouth undergraduates are woefully unaware of the history they must shape. Too few undergraduates know the origins of the College’s traditions, the gradual changes in Dartmouth’s institutions over the decades or even the names of the last five Dartmouth presidents. 

The student body does a disservice to the College and to itself by sleepwalking through history. Dartmouth’s institutional history is as much a pragmatic tool for social change as it is fascinating, amusing, and at times horrifying. History matters — societies large and small need to understand their past in order to appreciate the present and improve the future. For example, students must know the history of Dartmouth’s transition to co-education if they hope to combat the systemic roots of today’s sexual assault crisis. As the College reaches a momentous milestone, Dartmouth undergraduates have a unique opportunity to enrich their present by reconnecting with their place in Dartmouth history.

Dartmouth goes above and beyond to provide on-campus resources for all who seek a connection with Dartmouth’s history. The Rauner Special Collections Library maintains a rich collection of photographs and documents that chronicle Dartmouth’s journey through time. Rauner library attendants often personally guide visitors to pieces of the collection that may pique their interest. Rauner even posts blogs and podcasts to keep this wealth of knowledge accessible to the average student.

Dartmouth’s various alumni involvement programs also help to transmit and preserve the living memory of previous classes. The Class Connections system, for example, helps bridge generational gaps within the Dartmouth community by pairing an incoming class of first-years with the returning 50-year reunion class. This program keeps Dartmouth history alive by allowing Dartmouth students young and old to trade stories that can then be passed on to others. The Dartmouth alumni network, scholarships sponsored by alumni, alumni speaker series and history books written by alumni and other alumni programs all help current undergraduates connect with the experiences of past graduating classes. 

Despite this wealth of resources available to Dartmouth undergraduates, cultural barriers and busy schedules prevent many students from learning more about their history. Dartmouth’s rigorous curriculum is a central pillar of the College’s world-class education, but rigor also creates less space for students to explore self-directed opportunities to enrich their education. Yet even when undergraduates are willing and able to learn more about Dartmouth’s history, few know where to start. Not everyone in the student body knows about Rauner’s staggering wealth of documents, photographs, blog posts and podcasts that tell Dartmouth’s story, and those that do may not feel comfortable working with primary sources. Despite the best efforts of alumni outreach programs, generation gaps and a lack of experience with networking can still prevent students from making valuable contacts with older alumni. 

Dartmouth must understand its history to preserve age-old traditions in the present and chart a better course for the future. Dartmouth’s students, professors and alumni alike share a responsibility to keep Dartmouth’s history alive and acknowledged. 

The student body itself bears most of this responsibility — student-led organizations must do more to engage with Dartmouth’s history. Few other institutions can motivate large numbers of students over the long-term to pursue structured extracurricular enrichments to the Dartmouth curriculum. Rauner relies on student groups to supply the publicity and turnout they need to justify themed displays of their collection. Student groups can enrich their usual activities while performing a public service to the Dartmouth community by offering more opportunities to learn about Dartmouth’s history. 

Professors should also increase institutional awareness by adding historical context to their curriculum or teaching students to interpret primary source documents. Writing 5 courses and First Year Seminars alike do not put a proper emphasis on primary source research strategies; neither list primary source research as a mandatory pillar of their curricula. Mandatory instruction in primary source research would help the student body make the most of Dartmouth’s research-heavy curriculum and the wealth of knowledge on Dartmouth’s history. 

Alumni must also do more to keep their stories and traditions alive by directly engaging with Dartmouth undergraduates. While generation gaps affect students and alumni equally, alumni have much more networking experience than Dartmouth undergraduates ever could — alumni have a unique responsibility to build cross-generational relationships within the Dartmouth community. Class Connections events between matriculation and commencement would make student-alumni mentorships more possible, just as alumni guest lectures would increase inter-generational dialogue. 

The Dartmouth community must engage in these efforts to help its undergraduates remember Dartmouth’s roots because Dartmouth history is too important to be forgotten every four years. Student body decisions large and small are already shaping the College for generations to come. Dartmouth must remember the lessons of the last 250 years to successfully confront the challenges of today. Lest the old traditions fail, or old vices thwart new opportunities, dear old Dartmouth must give a rouse for its history. 

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