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A German Prof’s View of the College

Tanja Dückers, a widely known German writer who is currently teaching at the College, gives her take on Dartmouth’s social scene in a piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (or in translation, if your German is rusty). File this one in the category of “Is everything that I read in the press inaccurate, foolish or both?” Some excerpts:

But why in particular are there so many rapes at educational institutions? Some of the conversations at Dartmouth have focused on the exploitative character of capitalism per se…

Other discussions seek causes for the rape statistics on more pragmatic levels, and point out that most of the rapes take place at or after fraternity parties. There are of course “frats” at many American universities, but at a college like Dartmouth, which was founded in 1769 and is located in an isolated stretch of New England, they play a particularly important role.

If you want some kind of social life here you will attend the parties on campus because the alternative is listening to country music over a glass of juice at the local pub…

Annabel Martin, a professor of Spanish and head of Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth, says the system - that allows men to drink alcohol but not women - is like “something out of the 1950s.” Many believe that the fraternities propagate a regressive image of men and women that is conducive to violent behavior - and over half of the college’s male students belong to one.

But rapes aren’t the only problem: so are the sometimes extremely brutal initiation rituals at which, for example, “vomlets” (omelets made out of vomit) must be eaten or candidates are made to swim in the Connecticut River at night. One student drowned attempting this.

The faculty at Dartmouth has several times voted to ban fraternities at the college, but they have never been able to prevail against the alumni - who account in large part for financial donations the college receives…

But the alumni are not the only ones who are against banning fraternities. Many of the students are against it as well. Being part of a fraternity means being part of a group that later guarantees members a life-long professional network. In some cases, membership amounts to a kind of insurance policy against unemployment.

Capitalism? Women can’t drink? Fraternity unemployment insurance? It’s hard to know where to start in listing the errors and mistaken assumptions in a piece like this. One would think that a faculty member might have taken care to get her facts right. That said, this piece would make for fruitful study in a course that reviewed the cultural blinders that can distort a writer’s understanding of a subject (a person sees what that they want/hope to see) — or the tendency of many otherwise-rigorous scholars to confuse hallway gossip with the truth.

Addendum: The Süddeutsche Zeitung is Germany’s largest daily; it sells approximately 1.1 million copies each day.

Addendum: A young alumnus writes in:

The misinformation in Prof. Dückers’ article is astounding. I am especially concerned about her connecting a drowning in the Connecticut River to a fraternity ritual. If Prof. Dückers is referring to the 2005 drowning or the more recent RiverFest drowning, in both cases she would be wrong. That she misattributes their deaths for academic gain is offensive to the deceased and their families and is tantamount to equating fraternity members with murderers.

Furthermore, I wonder if Prof. Dückers’ beliefs reflect widely held views by the rest of the faculty. If I walked into a class bearing my fraternity’s letters on a hat or shirt, does my professor think of me as part of the system Prof. Dückers depicts? I should hope not.

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