Dartmouth undying, Part Two

Visit just about any college in the company of a prospective applicant and you will hear about how much the professors care about their students. Whatever the truth of these claims nowadays, that certainly was my experience at Dartmouth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as I tried to show yesterday in the first part of my recent speech to a group of Dartmouth students. In today’s installment I suggest that professors “care” most about their students when they teach them serious things.

But the way in which we go about preserving traditions also matters. Professor Radway and the others wanted to protect Dartmouth’s traditions not by coercion but by persuasion. When hotheads like me crossed the line and seized the administration building, Dartmouth (unlike inferior institutions such as Harvard) reacted the adult way. Instead of turning things over to police to bust heads and then leaving the radicals on the campus to create sympathy and cause more mischief, Dartmouth worked closely with state troopers to remove the offenders with a minimum of force and to get them off campus and behind bars so the campus could cool off. They shrewdly got an injunction so we offenders could be held in contempt of court. This meant the judge could pick the length of the sentence. By some strange coincidence, he picked a sentence that kept us incarcerated until the school year was basically over. By then, the students, who were busy taking exams, had all but forgotten about us. There was just enough time to give us disciplinary trials and adjourn for the summer.

So that was Dartmouth’s stick. But there was also a carrot. The next year, all but one of us was welcomed back and our professors began the arduous task of reasoning with us.

And make no mistake – few of us took to reason right away. But as with the rebellious girl who twenty years later in effect becomes her mother, the words of the professors stayed in the back of my head and then gradually made their way forward. I can still hear Professor Hart saying in an English course, “remember, you don’t just read the book, the book reads you.” At the time this comment struck me as ridiculous – how can a book read a person? But within a few years I appreciated the wisdom of the notion that the reader – and in particular the student – is not the measure of all things. In a sense, we are transients in relation to great literature.

But it wasn’t just the fact that as a Dartmouth student I had mostly serious, adult professors that helped redeem me. It’s also the fact that we read mostly serious works and studied mostly serious things. Dartmouth students read Paradise Lost, so we learned about Satan. By contrast, it’s my understanding that today you can be an English major at Dartmouth without ever having to read Milton.

Most Dartmouth students of my generation, and all History majors, studied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, the Reformation, the Napoleonic wars, and the appeasement of Hitler. By contrast, next week, my daughter will graduate from a well-regarded college with history as one of her majors without having taken a course that studies any period before approximately 1700. As a result, her less than traditional college education has not afforded her the same opportunity to become a serious adult that my traditional education afforded me.

And the decline in the seriousness of our education is leading to a decline in the seriousness of our politics. A while back, Secretary of State Rice caused a huge uproar when she suggested that our military has made thousands of tactical mistakes in Iraq. Some viewed this with glee as an attack on Secretary Defense Rumsfeld. Nothing excites folks in Washington as much as a breach in the solidarity of an administration, especially a Republican administration. Others viewed it as damning criticism of the war. But to anyone with a sense of history and a sense of what it means to fight a war, Rice had uttered little more than a truism. In warfare, if any military makes 2,000 difficult tactical decisions, approximately 1,000 of them will be mistakes.

But America doesn’t know this anymore. It doesn’t know what warfare is because it hasn’t received a traditional education, which is to say that it hasn’t received a true adult education. Hence, our discourse is plagued by an astonishing lack of maturity. And by the way, that immaturity does not exist exclusively on the left. However, anyone who wants to witness it in its purest form is invited to spend half an hour on the liberal side of the blogosphere.

To conclude, I trust that this talk has given you one alumni’s view of the essence of Dartmouth tradition. For me, it’s not about beanies. It’s about a place where serious traditional subjects and works are treated seriously by professors who don’t succumb to fads. It’s about a place where all views, not just politically correct ones, can be aired without fear of reprisal because someone might take offense. It’s about a place where professors and administrators don’t obsess (like parents watching their kids play in a sandbox) about the feelings of some categories of students, while viewing other categories — athletes, fraternity members and conservatives — in crude stereotypical terms. It’s a place where students who find themselves in trouble are given the presumption of innocence. It’s also a place where, if proven guilty, such students (whether radical activists or athletes) are dealt with harshly but (within reason) given the chance to redeem themselves, as I was.

Is the Dartmouth of today that place? I can’t answer that question, but you can. And by forming this organization perhaps you have. In any case, I trust that you’ve committed yourselves to doing your part to preserve and if necessary recreate the Dartmouth I’ve described – the one that helped redeem me all those years ago.

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