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Stomping and Tradition
My first acquaintance with the spirit of tradition at Dartmouth was the DOC Freshman Trips, something that Dartmouth students never forget. “Welcome Home ’11s” was hung on a banner over Collis. I joined the extreme-hiking group that trekked over Franconia Ridge, a real adventure for a flatlander from a farm in rural North Dakota. I had never been hiking before. At the high point of Franconia Ridge we stopped to rehearse the Dartmouth Alma Mater that we had been practicing while huffing and puffing on the steep, rocky trails of the White Mountains (you can read about the Alma Mater here). We nailed it, a group of enthusiastic, ragtag freshmen with pretty meager singing ability. We knew what Dartmouth represented and we loved it. We were home.
My female trip leader warned me that during the “Lest the old traditions fail” section of the Alma Mater, some students would stomp their feet. This was, she explained, a reference to coeducation and their belief and hope that Dartmouth would forever be a male-dominated institution. She encouraged us to stop this practice however we could. Days later, at Dartmouth’s convocation, I noted a number of freshmen and upper class women who were stomping their feet at this very moment of the Alma Mater. I asked a few about it, and was informed that they were stomping their feet to reaffirm coeducation, the tradition that gave equal standing to all sons and daughters of Dartmouth. They thought that this was what everyone was stomping their feet for.
I concluded that few people knew which “old traditions” the Alma Mater instructed Dartmouth to set a watch for; it was somehow up to individuals to articulate them. The Alma Mater could be read as encouraging the stasis of all traditions, as if any old construct of the College was to be ritually preserved. Tradition was itself to be revered as a virtue. This attitude seemed relativistic, mindless and anti-intellectual to me. This is an attitude towards tradition that is unworthy of Dartmouth and the intentions of the Alma Mater. Many traditions have been purged since Dartmouth’s founding, and in many cases the College is made better for it.
Since then, I have continued to stomp my feet during the Alma Mater, not “lest any old traditions fail” but “lest the old traditions fail.” The simple article, I believe, is critical to understanding our College’s conflicted relationship with tradition. The humanistic notions of truth, love, justice, beauty, and the “life of the mind” that define our liberal-arts education should also inform our hallowed traditions.
So when we consider disruptive change, we can neither resist for mere tradition’s sake, nor conform to appease some modern fashion. We must ask which old traditions we hold fast to and why. Consider the traditional semantics of Dartmouth as the College versus the university alternative. The College tradition evokes a powerful history regarding Daniel Webster and the Supreme Court that saved not only Dartmouth, but countless other religious, educational, and charitable institutions from the vagaries of the State. The College tradition evokes our purpose and focus upon the education of undergraduates. It distinguishes us from the purposeless morass of higher education in the United States where knowledge is made into an instrument instead of an end, and holds fast to the emancipatory character of the liberal arts. For these things, Dartmouth and those who love her must set a watch and stomp their feet.
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