Oct 20 2014
What qualities have always made Dartmouth special? We can talk about outputs, as an economist might: alumni loyalty; widespread love for the College among students, staff and faculty; bonds between friends that last for life; mutual support among acquaintances and strangers alike for people who have spent time in Hanover. But a discussion of outputs gets us only so far: description is not analysis; this information doesn't explain how such a state of affairs came to be.
We can also look at inputs: what is it about Dartmouth and Hanover that lead us to the fierce affection that marks the College? Of course, we can only speculate. The organic development of a society is infinitely complex; understanding one is difficult and we make changes at our peril. That said, in looking at the development of human relationships, and the web of friendships and love that members of the Dartmouth community consistently develop, we can see some special sides of the College.
The isolation of intellectual Dartmouth in flinty New Hampshire causes people to look inward to the institution, something that is not always a good thing -- provincialism is necessarily limiting -- but living on an island campus can cause people to focus on their own world with a greater intensity than they might otherwise do in a big city school. Needless to say, students don't define themselves by the entire institution; they can't be close friends with 4,000 other undergrads, or even the 1,000 members of their own class. By necessity they limit their circle of relations.
So how are friends made at Dartmouth? I've argued endlessly that for many years dorms were a locus of fruitful social interactions. One tended to make friends with the people who term after term lived across the hall from you, who played on the same dorm intramural teams as you, or who you saw on the stairs over and over again. That successful option ended when the College terminated dorm continuity in the mid-1980's.
In addition, students make friendships in their extra curricular activities, whether it be The D, or the symphony, a capella groups, theater or endless clubs and other activities, but those groups don't have residential homes, so if relationships are to persist, friendships needed a place to exist outside of Robinson Hall or rehearsal and meeting rooms. The same proposition is true of sports teams; where can teammates whose bonds were created in training and competition go to just be together, to share the happiness of unforced companionship?
Self-evidently, especially after the demise of the dormitories as functioning communities, Dartmouth's fraternities became the center of most students' social lives. Fraternities and sororities have never been more popular at Dartmouth than today, and I think that it is a fair bet that if the administration had not impeded the creation of more sororities over the past decade, even more students would be Greeks today.
The popularity of Greek houses makes sense. The houses have never been based on social class or geographic origin or religion or race (with only one exception). They seem to be organized by characteristics like teams sports, or shared interests, or the perceived personal qualities of members. Most importantly -- a characteristic possibly unique to Dartmouth -- the houses and their events are open to everyone on campus.
Yet last week, even as 67.4% of upperclassmen are members of Greek houses -- and one must respectfully assume that they joined their fraternities and sororities for rational reasons -- The D and others called for the abolition of the Greek system. In advocating for the end of the world as we know it, no proposals have been put forward for structures that might replace a system that students endlessly vote to support with their time and energy. Sure Phil and the gang talk about a housing plan that mimics Harvard: freshman dorms and then a house system. But will that setup work when so many students head off during sophomore year on one of Dartmouth's foreign programs? In such a system, the residential bonds of freshman year are broken at the end of first year, and it is hard to imagine anything valid being rebuilt in the multi-building clusters. Besides, at Harvard, the house system doesn't get the job done, as evidenced by the tepid support of Harvard alumni for their school in contrast to Dartmouth alums, not to mention the exclusive, elitist final clubs that fill the social void in Cambridge.
Most of my close friends at the College and I were GDI's -- we had our close-knit dorms to sustain us -- but I would counsel that the College take care in thinking about ending the Greek system. Doing so tampers with a core element of the student experience at the institution, and the move could have myriad unexpected consequences. As the College slides in the esteem of potential applicants, the rankings, and its own students, we should make sure that efforts to improve Dartmouth don't destroy the features that have made it great over the centuries. We could end up as the bottom-of the-bottom-tier Ivy for students who didn't get into their first-choice school -- a place with nothing distinctive about it save for a beautiful campus. We might be heading there already.
Addendum: Several readers have advanced the argument that abolishing the Greek system is analogous to the College's move to co-education a little more than forty years ago. Not a valid comparison to my mind. When Dartmouth went co-ed, that change had been made with success by most other institutions of higher learning. And while there was great resistance in the College community, the opinions of negatively inclined alumni and students did not encompass the whole spectrum of interested parties -- such as women. Today the rationale for abolishing the Greeks is that doing so will diminish any number of social pathologies from hazing to sexual assault and binge drinking. Yet evidence is never advanced that schools without frats, or schools that abolished their frats, do not suffer from these ills. Why not? Because such schools are afflicted with them every bit as much as Dartmouth.
Addendum: Taylor Cathcart '15 has written a fine column for The D in defense of the Greek system.