Levy: Fixing the House System: Let's Start Small

Gear can have a huge impact on how students perceive the House system.

by Gabrielle Levy | 10/1/19 2:10am

Let’s face it: By this point, we are all well aware that Dartmouth’s House system is in dire need of repair. Especially in the wake of the new residential access policy preventing students from accessing dorms outside their House system, it’s hard to enter into a conversation on campus without hearing some complaint about the House system. Yet, despite the go-getter and self-starter attitudes of Dartmouth students, I haven’t been hearing many proposed solutions. Of course, there is the petition to restore students’ access to dorms, but what about the deeper problems perturbing the College’s idealized House system? We need a way to fight the entrenched inequality between the Houses and turn the House system into a source of pride among students, instead of an object of ridicule.

Instead of eradicating the House system altogether, the best compromise between students and the College administration would be to work together to combat small inequalities from the bottom up. From discrepancies in dorm quality to disparities in school spirit, the Houses vary dramatically, but it must be said that the College is taking steps to make the Houses more equal. South House first-years, for example, are now living in the Fayerweathers before being subjected to the isolation of the Lodge dorm. However, there are still many inequalities between Houses that must be addressed. Moreover, the remedies for these inequalities do not have to be as extensive or time-consuming as reallocating freshmen to a better quality dorm to make up for the expected lesser dorm quality they will experience as an upperclassmen.

For example, I’ve often heard my fellow South House students gripe about the disparity in free gear handed out to students. At first, one might think it ridiculous and out-of-line for students to complain about receiving free gifts of clothing. But the problem extends beyond the material nature of the gear to feeling disconnected from the House communities that give away this gear. Carrying a coffee mug with a House name on it or wearing a scarf are simple but visible manifestations of a “buy-in” to these communities. Clothing is a projection of identity, and regularly donning this clothing or accesory with a House community name on it will reinforce this outward display of connectedness to the House and help spur others to embrace their own House communities. It is also a way to find and meet other members of one’s House community ­— the people who one might attend House events with and potential future roommates. Though it may sound like a trivial topic, gear is an important way to foster community and feel like one belongs to it.

In that vein, this fall, School House residents received a bright blue crewneck, while members of other Houses did not. Along with its prime real estate along Mass Row, this made it hard for members of other Houses to deny the circulation of claims I have heard that School House was the ‘best’ House. Though I am aware that the disparity in House gear likely stems from choices made by the House leadership teams, the lack of standardization of the quantity and quality of ‘swag’ distributed among the Houses unnecessarily plays into the informal ranking system that has befallen the Houses. And this ranking is problematic because it makes students less connected to their House, which may make residents less willing to compete in intramural teams for their House community, attend events sponsored by their House or visit House professors. Fortunately, this lack of standardization is also an easy inequality to remedy. 

In order to work toward ameliorating this inequity between the Houses, we should set up House-wide guidelines to standardize when gear is handed out and what type of gear it is. That way, instead of swimming in a sea of light blue crewnecks emblazoned with the word ‘School,’ we might get to see some purple, orange or black thrown in the mix. 

These guidelines would not only help to promote a sense of pride in one’s House community, but also a sense of unity among the Houses and the Dartmouth student community at large by making sure each student had the same type of crewneck, water bottle or drawstring backpack. 

Of course, clothing can’t turn the House system into a celebrated aspect of Dartmouth culture overnight. Nonetheless, it’s a good first step on the pathway to ensuring that the Houses are perceived equally by students and to encouraging House pride.