Dartmouth undying

This weekend, Dartmouth College held its commencement, which followed the 35th reunion of the class of 1971 that John and I belong to. And this September, Scott and I will each send a daughter to Hanover to join the class of 2010. Thus, I thought it might be fitting to share some remarks I made earlier this year to a select group of Dartmouth students about what the college and its traditions mean to me. These remarks are most likely to resonate, if at all, with Dartmouth grads of a certain age. However, I hope that some of our other readers will find them worthwhile. Since my speech was fairly lenghty, I will reproduce it (give or take a few ad libs) in two installments.

Thank you for that generous introduction. It’s an honor to address a group of leaders so dedicated to Dartmouth and its traditions. I must admit, though, that there is irony associated with me speaking to such a group. Because during my years at the College few students were less dedicated than me to those traditions.

I’ll give you two examples – one trivial and one that may make you wish you’d selected a different speaker. The first one involved the tradition of the freshman beanie. Until the fall of 1967, every entering Dartmouth freshman had to purchase and wear a beanie. Then the administration (in a preview of things to come) decided that beanie purchasing and wearing would be optional. But this edict had little practical effect because, according to the bookstore that sold them, the number of beanies purchased that fall was equal to the number of incoming freshman minus ten. Guess who was one of the ten. I must confess that the contrarian in me looks back with a little bit of pride at that one.

Such is not the case with my other, more serious example. In May 1969, I was one of about 50 students who seized Parkhurst Hall demanding that Dartmouth expel ROTC from campus. This was one of the College’s darkest moments, and I was in the middle of it.

How did that happen? And how did I go from that unfortunate place to where I am now — a conservative, pro-military blogger speaking to this great group of Dartmouth traditionalists? The key to answering both questions, has much to do with Dartmouth. In the first instance, I was influenced by the least mature, least sensible element of the campus – radical students. In the second case, the road to my redemption (if that’s not too dramatic a way of putting it) began thanks to part of the adult element of the campus of that day – specifically, the professors.

For it was my good fortune that the Dartmouth of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a critical mass of teachers who kept their wits about them during that turbulent time, and who did not succumb to the radical chic ethos of those years. By the way, these professors were mostly liberals who opposed the war in Vietnam. But they resisted the temptation that overwhelmed so many other intellectuals to infer from one arguably bad policy decision a broad and damning critique of America and its institutions, including Dartmouth.

It was also my good fortune that these men of Dartmouth were willing to reason with me even after I had violated fundamental principles of academic discourse that they held dear. The names of most of these professors won’t mean anything to you, but I feel obliged to recognize them by name. Above all, there was Professor Herb James of the speech department (my debate coach) and Professor Charles Wood of the history department, both of whom spent hours patiently trying to convince me of the error of my ways. In addition, I recall Professor Alan Gaylord of the English Department, Professor Jere Daniel of the History Department, and Professor Laurie Snell of the Math Department (my redemption was a cross-disciplinary venture).

Then there was Larry Radway, a government professor. He didn’t even know me really. But I had done very well on the midterm in his large lecture class, and when he found out a few weeks later that I was sitting in the Merrimac County jail, he drove down from Hanover to Boscawen, New Hampshire to visit me.

And he told me something that I think is highly relevant to this evening. He talked about how during World War II he had served on a boat that transported soldiers across the Atlantic to the European theatre. As you might imagine, there was a certain amount of tension on board between the sailors and the soldiers. And Professor Radway said that he and his fellow sailors viewed these troops as “transients” who deserved little say about how the ship should be run. After all, they would eventually leave the vessel forever, whereas the sailors would remain and carry on. To Radway, it was the same with students – they too were transients in a way, and the professors were the ones who would remain and carry on, and thus the ones who represented the real Dartmouth.

Now this is a very controversial outlook and one that, in the context of your generation of students, may seem wrongheaded and even offensive. But in the context of 1969, Professor Radway was saying that the professoriate had an obligation to protect the traditions and the traditional core values of Dartmouth from hotheaded young transients like me.

In the end, I think Radway got it half right. The professors do have an obligation to protect Dartmouth’s traditions. But Dartmouth students are hardly transients. Unlike the soldiers who left the ship forever in England, ex-Dartmouth students (as you will soon be) keep coming back, both in their mind’s eye and in the flesh. And some of you may have the good fortune to send your children to Dartmouth, as I will do this fall. And maybe you will even one day have to privilege of speaking to a group like this. So the obligation to preserve Dartmouth’s traditions is a shared one – it’s shared by administrators, faculty, students, and alums.

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