de Wolff: The Spirit of This College

How you approach your time at Dartmouth will determine what you get out of it.

by Thomas de Wolff | 9/7/21 4:15am

This column is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

At a commencement address in 1906, then-College President William Jewett Tucker introduced the concept of “the spirit of this College” that he believed would “be one of the stimulating and restraining influences” in the lives of the assembled freshmen. What exactly constitutes “the spirit of this College,” however, may be unfamiliar to the fresh-faced members of the Class of 2025. In fact, even to those of us who have been introduced to Dartmouth already, what this spirit signifies may be unclear. As a member of the Class of 2024 myself, this is often the case with many aspects of pre-pandemic Dartmouth – a looming issue I have written about before. While all classes will be on campus in the fall, the Class of 2022 will be the only one to have experienced an entire normal year at Dartmouth. Once they graduate, many traditions are at risk of dying out if not passed down. However, this year represents an opportunity for all of us to (re)discover what the Dartmouth spirit truly means.

By the time they graduate, every Dartmouth student will have their own interpretation of what the College’s spirit symbolizes. After all, there are innumerable factors that draw prospective students here, such as the excellent undergraduate teaching or the flexibility of the D-Plan. These are institutional qualities associated with Dartmouth, rather than its students. But there are also a few constant qualities found in this student body across the generations. As we look to the year ahead of us, we can draw upon these qualities to bring new meaning to “the spirit of the College.”

College is a time for exploring, trying new things and discovering oneself through the process. Alumnus John Ledyard — after whom the Ledyard Canoe Club is named — is someone who embodied that idea throughout all he did. While at Dartmouth, he canoed the length of the Connecticut River on a whim in the spring of 1773. Ledyard later roamed the world, voyaging alongside Captain Cook in the Pacific and traveling to Egypt on a quest to find the source of the Nile. 

Ledyard’s maiden voyage is honored every spring by the Canoe Club’s “Trip to the Sea,” which recreates his journey down the Connecticut River. Students today take up the spirit of Ledyard’s travels throughout their time at the College, honoring his legacy wherever their studies abroad or off-terms take them. For example, Sen. Rob Portman ’78, R-OH, kayaked the entire length of the Rio Grande while at Dartmouth. Each year, students of all ages travel the world through study abroad programs such as the History and Government FSPs in London or the Spanish LSA in Buenos Aires. Other students spend their off terms exploring destinations including Russia, Australia and Vietnam.

But you don’t have to explore the farthest corners of the globe to be adventurous; you can do that without leaving Hanover. It’s oft-repeated advice, but freshmen should still take heed: Try clubs or classes that you may not see yourself as being a perfect fit for. This applies to older students too — it’s never too late to join clubs that you may have previously considered. 

Anecdotally, I came into Dartmouth thinking with absolute certainty that I was going to be a government major. During freshman fall, I took a history class because its course description piqued my curiosity. I enjoyed it so much that I kept taking history classes, and soon, I realized I wanted to major in history instead. In the same vein, I will add that I am not a particularly “outdoorsy” guy, but carefree canoeing with friends on warm spring afternoons are still some of my most cherished memories.

Of course, there is much more to Dartmouth than simply being adventurous. Explore interesting classes and clubs to your heart’s content, but what you get up to outside of Dartmouth’s organized activities will define your time here just as much — if not more — than what you do in a class or club. And if there’s one thing Dartmouth students know how to do, it’s making memorable mischief. Former chemistry professor Edwin J. Bartlett, himself a member of the Class of 1872, detailed some of the more outrageous episodes of his time. Once, students fired “a gun so heavily loaded as to break 320 panes of glass.” Other rogues were described as “tarring and feathering a bad man” and “turning the occupants out of a dilapidated building and razing it to the ground.” 

It almost goes without saying that the misdeeds listed above, while entertainingly scandalous, would thoroughly offend modern sensibilities if committed today. But the attitude displayed here over 100 years ago remains very much alive on campus. Examples include the pranks played by Greek houses on one another, where composites and barbecue grills vanish for brief periods, or the Ledyard challenge, a tradition where students swim nude across the Connecticut River then run back to campus while evading police. 

Sometimes, this spirit takes on a more serious form during periods of increased activism on campus. In May 1969, students objecting to the Vietnam War occupied Parkhurst Hall and barricaded themselves in as a protest against Dartmouth’s ROTC programs. More recently, a considerable amount of graffiti appeared around campus in the dead of night protesting the administration’s woefully incompetent handling of the mental health crisis last year. Debates surrounding these and other issues involve all classes of students, and while they can be heated, they also reflect the passionate and free-thinking spirit that animates this community. 

At times, the Dartmouth spirit pushes the envelope, and students clash with the administration. But absorbing the untamed nature of one’s surroundings is a side effect of being in the woods of New Hampshire — a state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” after all — for so long. The Dartmouth spirit can be frenetic — manic, even — but this is far better than the stilted, overly intellectual and careerist alternative that is the norm at many of our peer schools today. While certain clubs or activities may be more professionally-minded than others, the wide range of interests pursued by students lend Dartmouth a lively air at all times. Students can hike The Fifty one weekend, present award-winning research the next, and interview with a consulting group the weekend after that. This lifestyle is full of vitality, and embodies what the Dartmouth spirit is all about. 

Despite some of the acts listed above, vandalism is not necessarily part of the Dartmouth spirit, but having firm convictions and being unafraid to express them most definitely is. Whether that’s in the opinion section of The Dartmouth, as many students do, or in the Supreme Court, like Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, did and Neal Katyal ’91 still does, Dartmouth students should not be afraid to stand up for what they believe in. The much-touted liberal arts education you will receive here is meant to teach you how to think — but more importantly, how to think for yourself. Maybe you think the Dartmouth spirit means something else; if so, you’re already proving me right. But your experience will define the rest of that meaning for you.

Adventurous, mischievous, free-thinking — these are positive qualities we see in Dartmouth students throughout the ages. When taken to extremes, they can land students in trouble, but those who master them, just as Ledyard or Webster did, will make history.

To the freshmen reading this: welcome home! At the moment, you have more pressing concerns than making history. I’ll leave you  — and any students from other classes reading this — one final thought to consider: Ernest Martin Hopkins, President of the College from 1916 to 1945, warned against those who demand “softness and self-indulgence from life.” Instead, he argued that those who demand much of themselves are the world’s greatest hope. Those who seek adventure, have a sense of humor, and think critically all at the same time are thus much better equipped for life than those who cannot. I advise you to heed Hopkins’ opinion and demand much of yourself during your time at Dartmouth. In doing so, you will fully absorb the spirit of the College, and prepare yourself for the lifelong adventure afterwards as well.

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