Leutz: Cabin Fever

Searching for perspective in Hanover.

by Peter Leutz | 1/30/20 2:20am

Most of us know the famous Daniel Webster quote about Dartmouth College: “It is sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it.” Certainly, I am among one of those who love it. There are very few other major universities endowed in the same way with the privileges of proximity that come with a small, liberal arts college feel. However, there are costs that accompany these privileges. 

Such costs are not a result of our relatively small student body, which allows for a tight-knit community of students and close relationships with professors. Rather, the costs are a result of Dartmouth’s campus being small in terms of physical space. As one heads down Webster Avenue — perhaps the physical embodiment of our “small” college —you’ll pass by a library, dormitories, a church and countless Greek houses. In a given day, the average Dartmouth student can study, sleep, pray and party, all on the same block. 

My life, with the exception of the occasional excursion off campus, exists within a radius of a couple hundred yards. Certainly, there is a convenience to this nexus of college life. Whether it’s going out, going to bed or going to study, my commute is negligible. However, there is a value to the commute. While at times inconvenient, physical distance between spheres of life provides a mental space between them. Such mental space is necessary for perspective and reflection. 

I lived in the River cluster freshman year. While the commute was long, especially in the winter weather, it allowed me to transition through both physical and mental space. When I left the library, the time I spent walking down Tuck Drive allowed me to fully leave the academic sphere of my life and transition mentally into a more relaxed dorm environment. Wherever I went, the long walk forced me to consciously commit to be mentally present in that space. I still transition through different spheres of life on campus, whether that’s academic, social, religious or athletic. 

However, without a commute, I often feel like I never truly leave any of them in terms of mental presence. I leave the library, and just seconds later, I can be in bed — even though mentally I’m still in the library. My perspective within this new space is clouded by a lingering perspective of the other. 

Our campus is physically small, which can inspire a kind of claustrophobia to perspective. It is difficult to create mental distance between academic and social life. When there is little to no physical distance between these spheres of life, that mental distance (or perspective) becomes increasingly difficult, and each sphere becomes crowded with the perspective of another. I’m not arguing the College should find a way to make campus bigger — picking up Webster and moving it a few miles down the road is not a plausible solution.

It is on us, as students, to recognize that our college’s campus is quite small. When moving from place to place, we should make a conscious effort to mentally move to that place as well. If not, we will constantly feel partially like we are relaxing, partying and studying all at the same time. This lack of mental presence is exhausting and clouds perspective. Beyond making an effort to consciously move through different spheres of life, such clouded perspective can be clarified by mentally engaging with the world beyond the physical limits of our campus. This can come in many forms with varying levels of required commitment: studying abroad, involvement in the local community, staying up to date on current events or even just making sure to call home on occasion. While it is a blessing to call ourselves Dartmouth students, it would be a shame to be nothing more. 

When we live our entire lives within essentially the same space — as I am living mine within a few hundred yards — it’s easy to get trapped within the same mental space as well. 

Mental distance is necessary to make up for the physical distance that life at a “small college” may lack. Without it, our minds and our perspectives may catch a crippling case of cabin fever.