Verbum Ultimum: A Voice Crying Out in a Community

Dartmouth must emphasize the importance of understanding the history of the community surrounding this place students call home.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 5/6/22 4:00am

by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Since its founding in 1769, “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” — or, “A voice crying out in the wilderness” — has been the motto of Dartmouth College, representing its unique place in rural New Hampshire and the tight-knit community that this setting creates. Understanding the origins of this motto, which we so proudly advertise, is integral to having a complete understanding of the College’s history — and of this place so many of us call home. 

Today, this so-called wilderness is more akin to a quaint New England town, but we would be remiss not to mention Dartmouth’s founding on stolen Abenaki land with the mission of educating Native American youth in Christian faith. And while the community surrounding our campus has grown increasingly metropolitan, the College holds tightly onto this idea of “wilderness” without encouraging students to understand the region within which they are situated. This leaves most students lacking a proper understanding of Upper Valley life outside of the Dartmouth bubble.

For example, students are often unfamiliar with how the high cost of living in the Upper Valley impacts low-wage workers and employees in the service industry. Many students don’t realize that the average server serving them margaritas at Molly’s or the person checking them out at J. Crew cannot afford to live in Hanover, and in many cases can barely afford to make ends meet. Even for some College staff members, working on campus entails a long commute from somewhere with more affordable housing.

To be fair, there are parts of campus that prioritize educating students on the troubled history of the College and the broader community within which it is situated. For example, the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy has the Class of 1964 Policy Research Shop — which “allows students to engage directly in the public policymaking processes in Vermont and New Hampshire” — and the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact is dedicated to local volunteerism — in which students “learn from, and with, neighbors in nearby Upper Valley communities through a wide range of service-oriented engagements.” 

There are also a sampling of courses offered in various departments in which professors build these issues into their course material — such as in GEOG 43, “Food and Power,” or PBPL 51, “Leadership in Civil Society.” Additionally, there are approximately 10 Social Impact Practicum courses facilitated by DCSI each term, intended to offer a “project-based experiential learning opportunity connecting undergraduate courses at Dartmouth with community needs.” 

However, the College itself does little to encourage students to engage with  programs that promote an understanding of the Upper Valley. In fact, the only members of the Editorial Board who were even aware of these specific programs and classes  were those of us who had participated in them ourselves — which does not mean that more programs do not exist, but at a minimum, they are not well advertised.

What’s more, there is a clear lack of programming that educates students about Dartmouth’s problematic history with Native Americans — including that it rests upon stolen Abenaki lands — despite the fact that this history is integral to understanding how the College became what it is today. While this information can be obtained in a variety of ways — from personally motivated research at Rauner Special Collections Library to taking classes in the Native American and Indigenous Studies department — the onus is on students to seek out this information for themselves, or on professors to add it to their syllabi.

Furthermore, knowing this history is imperative in understanding and appreciating current events on Dartmouth’s campus and across the country. Jami Powell, the curator of Indigenous art at the Hood Museum, uses exhibits such as “This Land” to disrupt the norm which has historically removed Indigenous voices from American history. Being aware of this broader narrative of erasure is the first step in ensuring students understand the significance of holding events like the annual Powwow, scheduled for this Saturday, or of even having a NAIS department at Dartmouth.

In short, having just a few places for students to learn about the community and place they call home is not enough. Although these resources allows interested students to learn about the dynamics of the Upper Valley or Dartmouth’s history, it also means that many students will know little about the place they will be living, learning and working in for the next several years.

Dartmouth is a school that rests much of its reputation on its “compelling sense of place”. But instead of emphasizing the value of such knowledge, the College leaves it up to each student to determine how much they should learn about the “Granite of New Hampshire” around them. What’s more, having a firm grasp on the complexities of the place you live in is crucial to being a good citizen, neighbor and member of your community — a lesson that students should be taught as they go on to integrate themselves into communities across the globe.

Going forward, Dartmouth must do more to guarantee that students understand the importance of learning about the history and dynamics of their surrounding community. While we do not necessarily believe that Dartmouth should make certain classes or programs a requirement, we do think they should clearly articulate the value of learning about the history and community of the College. Perhaps this may include advertising their existing programs more aggressively, adding subject matter requirements to the WRIT 5 or First-Year Seminar courses, or even creating a new section in the timetable to streamline access for those students interested in taking classes with an Upper Valley or Dartmouth history component.

Although Dartmouth is in many ways a rural college, we must not pretend that students are not a part of a place with a distinct community and history. After all, if we have a “compelling sense of place” we should push students to learn about it, not just offer the opportunity passively to those who already understand the value of doing so.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.