On School Spirit

Baker Library, Dartmouth College

Baker Library, Dartmouth College

Dartmouth knows how to do a reunion. Last year was my husband’s 25th. He’d gone to the 5-year and the 10-year, but those were both before we were married, before I’d even met him. He’d taken me up to Dartmouth once, just to show me around. It’s only an hour away from where his parents live in New Hampshire, from the town to which they’d moved when he was in high school. My husband loves New Hampshire, so I’d always thought his love of Dartmouth was just part of that.

It’s a beautiful place, Hanover, nestled in the New Hampshire hills just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. It’s incredibly green. Most colleges have a quad, a large rectangular lawn around which are clustered the oldest buildings, the ones that made up the original institution. These lawns are always green, but Dartmouth’s seems somehow greener than most. Perhaps it has something to do with the trees. Dartmouth has more trees than my alma mater, Earlham College, which otherwise sort of resembles Dartmouth. Green is everywhere at Dartmouth, not just because of the lawn and trees, but because green is the school color. Everything that can be is painted green: the shutters on all the buildings, door signs, trash cans. Curtains are green, upholstery is green, even the leather chairs in Sanborn library, where my English-major husband ran the writing center the year after he graduated, are green.

It could have been that extra year too, I thought, that had caused him to be so sentimental about the place. We give money to Dartmouth every year, a lot, at least for people like us. I was shocked, actually, when I learned how much we gave. My contributions to Earlham have been erratic and much more modest. Dartmouth, I’ve pointed out several times to my husband, surely needs the money less than Earlham. Earlham grads tend to make careers in the Peace Corps, not the World Bank, and Earlham, being a Quaker school does little to encourage the fervent school spirit that is typically cultivated at Ivy League institutions.

But my husband was adamant. Cutting back on our annual contribution to Dartmouth, even if only to increase our contribution to Earlham, was not on the table.

He has some scattered bits of Dartmouth paraphernalia: a really old green wool scarf with a single broad white stripe in the center (white is the other school color, not surprising given the amount of snow in Hanover in the winter), a green wool varsity-style jacket. He rowed crew, though not long enough to get a letter. There’s a beer mug and a coffee mug and a few other smaller things. I have nothing from Earlham, except a lot of wonderful memories, so I viewed my husband’s collection as one of his eccentricities.

It wasn’t until we went the the reunion last year that I realized his eccentricity might actually express itself in the relative paucity of his Dartmouth paraphernalia compared to what appeared to be the collections of his classmates. Approximately 300 alums showed up for the 25th reunion of the class of 1987. There must have been closer to 600 people all together in that many alums brought spouses and children.

Children were everywhere. A special tent was set up for them and all sorts of activities were planned for them. There was even a miniature buffet table in the tent where we had most of our meals. More than 80% of the class of ‘87 was married, I learned from the reunion yearbook. Most of them had children, and most of the children at the reunion were decked out in Dartmouth garb. Some of them were clad entirely in Dartmouth garb, from their Dartmouth shirts and baseball caps right down to their little green and white shoes and socks. Green fleece jackets for the cold mornings and green backpacks. Many also carried Dartmouth sports gear, Dartmouth balls, frisbees and water bottles.

There was a special event set up for parents on navigating the college admissions process. It wasn’t hard to guess to which institutions these little green-and-white clad munchkins were hopefully headed. If they didn’t already have positive associations with the place from their parents’ reminiscences, they would certainly have such associations by the end of the weekend.

It’s hard not to like the place and not just because it’s beautiful. There’s an energy to it. I’d expected the reunion crowd to be full of high-powered doctors and lawyers and investment bankers, people who’d be unable to sit through any of the events planned for the weekend without having to take a call on their cell phones.

I was wrong.

There was an open mic the evening we arrived, and the array of talent was staggering. Most of the performers were musicians. None was a professional, but any one of them could have been. Two guys, both fluent in Russian, did an inspired rendition of a Russian drinking song. Another did a hauntingly beautiful piece on what looked like a cross between a lute and a banjo. Two guys, a guitarist and a drummer, did an unrehearsed rendition of “Psycho Killer” that was so good if you closed your eyes you’d swear you were at a Talking Heads concert. And then there was my husband, who performed a stand-up comedy routine he’d prepared specifically for the reunion.

The whole reunion was like that; people sharing talents and gifts that in some cases were reflected in their professions but which just as often were only hobbies.

“That’s the thing,” my husband reflected mid-way through the reunion, “there are so many really talented people at Dartmouth. It’s hard when you have a lot of talent because you come to the point when you have to choose.”

And Dartmouth grads choose wisely, or perhaps I should say, prudently. Despite all the talent on display, there were not too many professional artists or entertainers among the reunion goers. There were, as I had anticipated, quite a number of doctors and lawyers and high-powered professionals of other sorts. I did not, however, see many of these movers and shakers ducking out of events to take calls. When they did something, including attending an event at the reunion, they gave it their all.

My husband read a chapter from his satirical self-help book to a packed audience as part of a panel of writers he’d organized. It was the best reading he’d given in terms of the audience response. Not only did they laugh at all the right places, they hung around afterward to find out where they could buy copies of his and the other writers’ books.

Dartmouth people stick together.

I was surprised by all of this because my impression of Dartmouth had been formed during the period of Dinesh DiSousa and the notorious Dartmouth Review. I’d assumed that Dartmouth cranked out thorough-going egoists committed to defending the most ruthless brand of laissez faire capitalism.

I was wrong.

I was leafing through the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine recently when I came across a letter from an alum of the class of 1935. He wrote that he, and several other alumni agreed “that we live in a plutocracy and not a democracy. … I chose to enroll at Dartmouth,” the letter continues,

because it was a liberal arts institution offering me an opportunity to expand my knowledge as well as allowing me to be part of the great outdoors, which I love.History and political science, my major, was my great love and I still study it almost every day. It was not my career, however. The science and math classes I took enabled me to be a pioneer in the plastics industry and an innovator in centrifugal casting. …I attended Dartmouth during the depths of the Great Depression and what I lived with is seared into my bones, as I saw so many less fortunate than me decline into abject poverty. I became and still am, I am proud to say, a bleeding heart liberal, as were many of my schoolmates.

I don’t know how many of the class of 1935 are still around, but I learned something at my husband’s reunion that I had not expected to learn: that bleeding heart liberal spirit is still alive and well at Dartmouth and continues to be passed down to new students. Not all Dartmouth alumni are liberals, of course, but the overwhelming majority of those present at the reunion had a conspicuous commitment to the public welfare, even if they did not always agree on precisely how that might best be achieved.

Dartmouth alumni are proud of their alma mater not simply because it is one of a tiny handful of elite educational institutions, but because Dartmouth helped to shape their character and the character of their classmates in positive ways. Dartmouth is a community. It is what a liberal arts institution is supposed to be: a community committed to helping young people realize their full potential, both as individuals and as members of the larger society, and realize that that can never be achieved outside of a community.

I no longer complain about the size of our annual contribution to Dartmouth. I’ve also begun to make a similar annual contribution to my own alma mater. These are hard times for higher education. Schools, particularly liberal arts ones, need all the help they can get.

And we need all the help they can give us, because these are hard times for us as well.

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