Lest Old Traditions Fail: Reflections on Institutional Continuity, Change and the Pressure to Just ‘Buy In’

Dartmouth loves its traditions — but that shouldn’t place it above criticism.

by Mia Russo | 9/7/21 3:25am

fi-oldtraditions
by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

One of the stories I heard on my first visit to Dartmouth was about the 1904 fire that destroyed  Dartmouth Hall. After the historic building burned down, alumni from around the world rushed to campus to help rebuild it — both with funds they gathered rapidly and brick by brick with their own hands. I think about this story often — my freshman year on campus marked the 250th anniversary of the founding of the College and the celebration was centered around the idea of tradition that Dartmouth so clearly prides itself on. 

These traditions are one reason I chose to come to Dartmouth in the first place; after going to a small, close-knit high school, the sense of community that stems from generations of tradition was very appealing to me. I loved that before I even arrived on campus for orientation, I would meet alumni who were so excited I was going to the College. They would list off the activities they loved during their time on campus — from learning the “Salty Dog Rag” on First-Year Trips to the special kind of pong played in fraternity basements to the unique joys of sophomore summer. These fond memories are why our alumni care so much about the Dartmouth community — and for that reason, they are the same activities we partake in today. 

Though my time at the College has been disrupted by COVID-19, I have felt that tradition was most emphasized my freshman fall and now during my sophomore summer. Incoming students are bombarded with traditions as a way to make them feel welcome and included before they are introduced to the larger campus. First-Year Trips is meant to be a bonding experience for incoming freshmen to create a sense of familiarity with each other and campus norms before they are overwhelmed with the other classes returning to Hanover. Yet, as great of an experience as I had during Trips, looking back at the programming reveals a powerful message. Before you even begin to know the College, you are told that there is one way to fit in: by buying into the traditions presented to you, and sometimes even forcefully enjoying the introduction to campus culture you are given. 

Even after Trips, freshman fall is all about assimilating first-year students into campus culture. From the fear-mongering before matriculation to walking around the Homecoming bonfire with upperclassmen yelling “Worst class ever!” and “Touch the fire!” at you, to learning the unique lingo that borders on being its own language and trying to secretly break the frat ban, students are told that these are the things that will make our time at Dartmouth special. But they are also advertised as being things you must enjoy to fit in and be accepted on this campus. 

Dartmouth has changed significantly over the past 252 years, but in a lot of ways, it has also purposefully remained the same in the name of the traditions that bind us. I used to feel very strongly about many of these aspects of campus culture, laughing as I tried to explain them to friends from home, though it was always apparent the College I called home was truly nothing like any other campus around the country. Yet, now having wrapped up my sophomore summer, I have realized that many of the traditions that unite us unintentionally perpetuate some of Dartmouth’s worst issues. 

I have had many conversations with my peers this summer — both members of the Class of 2023 and Class of 2022 — about the pressure we feel to love Dartmouth all the time, even when there are clear structural issues that create unsafe environments. Greek spaces on campus perpetuate instances of gender-based violence, sexism, racism and homophobia. Hanover is an elite college town — a tiny, often isolating bubble that does not reflect the Upper Valley community we are situated within and is difficult to break out of. Dartmouth was the last Ivy League institution to let women attend in some form — which is why we have a sophomore summer in the first place — and is still very much a place made for white, heterosexual men. 

For many people, it feels that if you don’t love the College — if you’re not enjoying every aspect of your time here on campus — there is something wrong with you. I have felt this way, and I admittedly fit into most of the boxes that form the stereotypical Dartmouth student. When I started talking to my peers about this, I found that not only was I not alone in this sentiment, but rather, I was in the majority. It is so easy to feel isolated here — the ten-week terms move rapidly, everyone is busy and the work hard, play hard environment is difficult to keep up with. The duck analogy you hear about is true: each student may look like they are gliding across the water, but underneath the surface we are all struggling to stay afloat.

To the Class of 2025, I hope you know that if you don’t fall in love with the College at first, you are not alone. The traditions pushed on you are not meant for everyone, and though it may seem like everyone is happy, it is normal to be struggling. Try not to become disillusioned. Talk to your peers — I assure you many of them feel the same way. We are all just too intimidated by the overwhelming campus culture telling us to love this school to admit it. There are spaces for you on campus; granted, they might be a bit harder to find, but if you start talking, you will find them. And if you do love the College, don’t be afraid to criticize it. It is not weak to acknowledge that even a space you love has its issues. 

I often wonder: If Dartmouth Hall burned down next year, would my class come together to rebuild it? In many ways, I think the answer to that question is no. Our emphasis on tradition has become a double edged sword: though it is exactly what draws people to the College, many students feel unhappy and out of place if they don't “buy into” it once they arrive. Importantly, I am not criticizing Dartmouth because it has done me wrong — I am incredibly grateful for my time so far on this campus. I am criticizing the College because I love it, and by looking inwards at some of the harmful effects this emphasis on tradition has, I believe Dartmouth can do better for its students and we can do better for each other. 

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