Breaching the Dartmouth Bubble: Reflecting on Era-Defining Moments of Commencements Past
COVID-19 has shaped the Class of 2021’s experience at Dartmouth; events of similar global significance, including the Vietnam War, both World Wars and apartheid, defined past students’ time in Hanover.
Reflecting on crises past may help chart a course as the College begins to exit the current one.
This article is featured in the 2021 Commencement special issue.
Commencement is a moment of reflection — a time when seniors and their families gather to celebrate the completion of their four years at college. In 2021, COVID-19 has dominated graduates’ conversations on all fronts, changing how we think about opportunities after graduation, which cities seem like viable options for relocation, and the future of remote work. Though it is difficult to imagine international issues as globally pervasive as the pandemic, events of great significance have occurred in years past.
The short institutional memory of the College contributes to the feeling of event impermanence; scandals seem to float by at least every four years. Major changes tend to be grumbled about by upperclassmen — until enough time passes for all students to assimilate the changes into their worldview and forget that things were ever different. Though COVID-19 presents a unique challenge to graduates of the College, it is important to combat the feeling that this pandemic is all-consuming and unprecedented by recalling that graduates in years past felt the same way about the trials of their own times.
In some ways, COVID-19 is unlike many other prior challenges of national or international scale in that it has reached nearly every corner of the planet. Though the more affluent can afford to minimize exposure to pathogens as they work from home and outsource grocery shopping, they are not invulnerable from a bout with COVID-19 in a lonely hospital bed. The Financial Crisis of 2008, too, exposed the vulnerabilities of the American banking system, but those with the financial ability to pay off their mortgages and those in charge of banking systems were bailed out by the federal government and able to come out relatively unscathed.
Even 9/11 — a national tragedy unlike any other in recent memory — affected Middle Eastern civilians abroad as well as those falsely coded as terrorists domestically. While COVID-19 is in some ways an equalizer — no matter who one’s parents are, social gatherings are limited, in-person classes are few and far between — in others it has exacerbated the inequalities of contemporary American society. Those with stable jobs were able to take time off of work, those with health insurance through their employers or out of pocket did not fear financial ruin for a trip to the hospital and those with secure home situations did not fear the long quarantine period. The Trump era split our country on mask policy, best approaches to lockdown and the origins of the virus. Though the tendency to exceptionalize the period is strong, the College has seen intense division and seemingly spectacular displays of political disagreement in years past. Graduates of the Class of 2021 will not be the first to contend with a world in need of so much work. There are some moments in time that no one escapes; though we may experience them individually, collectively we come out changed. Often there is a human death toll associated with these events that forces us to re-evaluate our own lives. Regardless of our own proximity to death, we are reminded of our shared humanity when strangers die. It is impossible to remain neutral or unaffected during these periods.
In his 1969 valedictorian speech, Kenneth Ira Paul ’69 pointed to the era of political turmoil that had ensued during his time at Dartmouth. As the battle for civil rights and the Vietnam War exposed the weaknesses of American government, it was easy for some to refuse to take a strong stance on the war. Members of the upper and middle classes in many cases were able to avoid the draft and get their college degrees instead, or managed to medically exempt themselves from conscription.
“White liberals, middle-class, and middle-of-the-road, we have crouched in the shadow of the draft as a war drags on, remote, expensive and interminable,” Paul said. “We have seen that though its cities burn, this nation continues to spend billions to build missiles and bombs, instruments of death.”
Paul could not separate the frivolity of student years from broader American trends: “No college could be unaffected by this inversion of the American dream of a beer at the ballpark or the fraternity house, a situation comedy on the tube or on a road-trip.”
National politics had pierced the campus bubble just over a month before Paul’s valedictory address when students occupied Parkhurst Hall — known then as the Administration building — in protest of ROTC presence on campus. Nearly three hundred students seized the building and demanded the complete abolition of ROTC programs, the instatement of College scholarships to students who would lose military scholarships and an immediate end to all military recruiting.
Paul’s pushback to the partisanship that inspired such protests could easily be heard in the current polarized political climate.
“We must recognize that the blind alleys of partisan polemics are incompatible with the expanding vistas of a liberal education,” he told students that day. “I hope that the Class of ’69 has learned that in politics there is no right, only shades of error and kinds of guilt.”
International conflict also shaped the Dartmouth experience of the 1930s and 40s, when World War II was raging. At the war’s outset, Dartmouth professors living in Europe, including several German department faculty confined to the Third Reich, wrote about being stranded abroad after sailing schedules were disrupted by warfare. Students were also impacted, albeit less directly, by the outbreak of war in Europe: One student wrote in the September 20, 1939 issue of The Dartmouth — just three weeks after German tanks rolled into Poland — that “[the] usual green caps, the moving in, the greetings, the usual importance of beginning another year at Dartmouth College seem less important to most of us this week, and undergraduate events we once thought of great consequence seem trifling, isolated from the affairs of the world. In the minds of most of us is the thought that we are all of war age.”
After the United States joined the war, Dartmouth became the nation’s largest training ground for a unit of the U.S. Navy’s V-12 program, which enlisted colleges to serve as officer training grounds beginning in 1943. The purpose of the institution changed overnight, as did the student newspaper: “The Daily Dartmouth” was temporarily renamed the “Dartmouth Log.”
In 1943, the “Dartmouth Log” published a picture of members of the V-12 unit and the College waiting in line outside McNutt Hall for academic registration. “Standing in line seemed like an endless process for all hands as the V-12 Unit opened last week,” the caption read. “Here trainees are shown in front of McNutt Hall to register for their academic work with the College.” The students stand in line forming a large crowd — reminiscent, oddly, of lines students saw while waiting for COVID-19 testing.
Even earlier, ahead of the American entry into World War I, The Dartmouth wrote of student volunteers being trained for war in gym class.
“Dartmouth stopped talking about going to war and actually went to war on February 7, 1916, when for the first time the volunteer Dartmouth Battalion met in the Alumni Gym,” a 1942 Dartmouth article on the use of Alumni Gymnasium during wartime read. “There were 150 men at the initial drill; they wore tennis shoes to protect the floor; they were offered courses in ‘military engineering, camp sanitation, the chemistry of explosives, surveying and mapping, and signaling, including wilderness telegraphy as well as the care of rifles and rifle practice.’”
The era of South African apartheid was also a defining one for Dartmouth. In the thick of apartheid, students organized to demand the College divest from all funds that did not follow the Sullivan Principles — a set of six criteria developed in 1977 by African-American preacher Reverend Leon Sullivan as goals of equality to work towards in nations where American corporations conduct foreign investment — erecting shantytowns on the Green to highlight the living conditions of many black South Africans.
By June of 1985, after a series of rallies, teach-ins and vigils, the Board of Trustees had issued its first statement supporting divestment. The following year, it voted to divest from companies not adhering to the Sullivan Principles.
Still, students were divided on whether the Sullivan Principles went far enough, and eventually, political differences led to violence. On Jan. 21, 1986, the day after the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a group of 12 right-wing students — among them ten staff of The Dartmouth Review — staged an attack on the shanty towns on the Green set up by anti-apartheid protestors. Following the destruction of the shanty towns, 150 students, faculty and local residents staged an over 30-hour sit-in at Parkhurst Hall, demanding that the students who tore down the shanties be punished.
One student, Demetrius Eudell, in September 1986 testified to the United Nations about the shanty towns on campus and the administration’s response. According to Eudell, the administration initially reacted by “demanding the destruction of the shanty towns by the following Sunday, or they would dismantle them.”
“The shanty towns were not removed,” Eudell said in his testimony, “and the administration replied they could stay ‘as long as they provided an educational purpose.’ The purpose of the shanty towns was not to educate the apathetic, status-quo Dartmouth student. The shanty towns were constructed to dramatize the living conditions of the Black people in South Africa, and to make the College address the issue of having investments in corporations that perpetuate a racist regime.”
By 1989, amid ongoing pressure from students and community members who considered the Sullivan principles too moderate, the Board went a step further, voting to completely divest from companies operating in South Africa. The College’s divestment continued through 1994, the year South Africa held its first multi-racial election and the anti-apartheid African National Congress party, led by Nelson Mandela, rose to power.
The concept of the “Dartmouth bubble” is widely employed in reference to the College’s rural location and isolation from global, national and local politics. Still, the bubble hasn’t withstood the crises of recent history — before COVID-19, world wars and American intervention abroad brought a dose of the real world to the idyllic Dartmouth Green. An institutional history, when taken care of, can remind us of what past graduates, peering at the world from the vantage point that we do today, had to reckon with upon matriculation. Our tiny corner of the world has been through the unthinkable before, and come out the other side; with any luck, it will do so once more.