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Balancing the Equities

When members of the Class of 2016 return to Hanover for their 25th reunion, I have no doubt that concerned sophomores from the Class of 2041 will express sympathy for all that their elders had to endure: the rampant sexual assaults, the omnipresent racism, the oppressive hazing and homophobia. However, like people in my own Class of 1979 who talk to today’s students, the ‘16’s will explain in return that isolated news reports do not history make, and that student life was quite different, and quite a bit better, than a scaremongering media would have one believe. Exhibit A might be a letter written to me last week by a mother of a young alumnus:

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Addendum: The alumnus in question informs me that in his co-ed fraternity the members, male and female, all refer to each other as brothers — harkening back to the period from 1972 until the late 1980’s when Dartmouth men and women lustily sang Men of Dartmouth without concern about gender issues. Interestingly enough, when the words of the alma mater were changed, the frequency with which the song was heard dropped precipitously, as I reported about five years ago.

Addendum: The young alumnus responds to my addendum:

While I recognize the comparison you draw to the alma mater, I don’t think this choice of words is an example of simply acting “without concern about gender issues.” Instead, I think it reflects a deliberate decision by the members of a community to select, by consensus, one particular meaning for the existing term that best upholds the community’s egalitarian values. I am less convinced, unfortunately, that members of the general student body during the early years of coeducation felt they were afforded a similar agency to (re)define the language of the alma mater as appropriate (including by changing its words, if necessary) in order to meet their values.

Actually, the decision to stick with the original words of Men of Dartmouth was the result of a well understood series of events, but that is a story for another day.

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