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Berg: Myth is (Already) Dead

From a recent Verbum Ultimum:

We spend our four years here grasping at this vague, amorphous concept, this mythic ideal. But to move forward from division, we must destroy this concept. The Dartmouth experience is not made by joining the right Greek house, getting a 4.0 or welcoming new students with dyed hair and wild flair. Treating these facets of campus life like boxes to check off eliminates curiosity and diversity of experience, key tenets of our college-aged years.

It’s time to kill the myth.

There is no perfect or correct way to experience Dartmouth. There is no checklist of items to tick off. No experience of Dartmouth is truer or more valid than your own. Until we give up the fantasy that there is some ideal experience, some blueprint to which we must conform in order to be happy — to be “real” Dartmouth students — we can never stabilize from the year that has shaken our campus community.

I’m going to be provocative here: what afflicts Dartmouth and what afflicts so many of its peers is not the oppressiveness of a myth; it is the vacuum of a script-less existence. My every pursuit at Dartmouth was not worthy of me, nor worthy of the College, simply by virtue of my choices. We need blueprints, and as the Verbum noted, a mindless “check the box” approach is not the answer. But what is needed is a coherent, normative vision, free to be debated and contested, but real enough to be grasped.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently delivered an intriguing Commencement address at William & Mary Law School, entitled “Reflections on the Future of the Legal Academy”:

The law schools themselves are partly to blame for the belief that all the law you really need to know can be acquired in two years. For starters, they increasingly abstain from saying there is anything you really need to know…

This elimination of a core curriculum, and the accompanying proliferation of narrow (not to say silly) elective courses has not come without its costs. In more than a few law schools, including some of the most prestigious (the University of Chicago, for example), it is possible to graduate without ever having studied the First Amendment. Can someone really call himself an American lawyer who has that gap in his compendious knowledge of the law? And can a society that depends so much upon lawyers for shaping public perceptions and preserving American traditions regarding the freedom of speech and religion, afford so ignorant a bar?

Law schools are retreating from defining their profession and purpose. What will be the result if a similar movement takes hold at Dartmouth? Dartmouth risks producing students who will have more or less the same education that they would get anywhere else. And if that is all we wish to be, a rural flavor of the American elite liberal arts education, than I suppose we can throw off the chains of idealism and simply celebrate whatever we end up doing. I believe there is a better way.

Dartmouth is of the Upper Valley, the mountains and the forests of New Hampshire —students should be in and of them as well. Many people have called the Upper Valley their home, from the Abenaki to Eleazar Wheelock to generations of students; students should seek to know them and understand them so that they might better know and understand themselves. Dartmouth is a small College — and students should seek knowledge and wisdom together, in close community, in that fierce spirit. If a student misses this and the constellation of ideas that flows from it, they are missing out. This is part of what Professor Ronald Green described so eloquently in his January 2012 column in The Dartmouth:

“Rather, I believe that our central goal must always be the moral, intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual development of each individual student. If that student goes on to help improve the world, wonderful. But it is that student’s growth and deepening as a person that comes first.”

Busting up a non-existent myth will not liberate students from their anxieties. What we need are more and better blueprints worthy of our students, and students who care enough to investigate them.

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