How Did It Get So Late So Soon?
By Jamila Ma, The Dartmouth Senior Staff
Published on Friday, May 25, 2012
If I woke up tomorrow and someone told me I’d dreamed the last four years, I would believe it.
My parents are immigrants and don’t have friends or family in the states, and as a result, I had both an insular childhood and a fantastical understanding of American culture. I attended a very large public high school in New York that was the closest manifestation of a meritocracy I’ve ever seen. There was no “Mean Girls”-style cafeteria diagram — none of the familiar pop culture tropes about high school. I had little comprehension of privilege or popularity.
In retrospect, I’m surprised at my relatively smooth transition to Dartmouth. It is only now, as I’m gathering pieces of the last four years and preparing to leave this place, that I realize how objectively strange life here can be, and how radically different it is from anything I’d ever known before Dartmouth. I don’t bat an eyelash at naked people running around Robinson Hall, the squalor of a fraternity basement or boys peeing off a balcony. I suppose those are the harmless things, and maybe they are more indicative of college life in general than of Dartmouth. But then there are times when things are no longer harmless. How will we know when we’ve crossed the line?
For the last four years, it’s been my job to serve as an objective observer of the Dartmouth community, first as a news reporter, and then as an editor of The Dartmouth. There are always two sides to every story, if not more. But when you’re mired in the depths of conflict, it’s hard to hear beyond the cacophony of voices identical to your own.
This past year has been characterized by a lot of anger and negativity toward the College and its administration. From Occupy Dartmouth to every panel, forum or student and presidential committee on hazing, binge drinking or sexual assault, we’ve spent a lot of time being angry. Some of the time we were angry with each other, but most of the time we were angry with College President Jim Yong Kim.
I’m not sure how much of that anger is fairly placed, and I don’t think it’s been productive. There are some things for which we can blame the administration, and there are a lot that we can’t. What’s more, we too often hold President Kim responsible for issues that fall more appropriately in the dean of the College division. Regardless, at the end of the day our problems are our own, and that explains their resilience. We inflict this pain on each other. What kind of meaningful change can we expect from an external force when the problem lies within each of us, or when we voluntarily engage in destructive behavior?
As a government major, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the causes of conflict, how to incentivize good behavior and the underlying theories that dictate how we perceive the first two. When we think about Dartmouth’s problems, are we realists? Constructivists? Who are the primary actors in the Dartmouth community? How do they perceive each other and what interests are at stake?
This is the strange part about Dartmouth. Compared to other schools, our community’s primary actors and competing interests are made explicit by the Greek system and the small size of the College. Give someone an allegiance to hold on to, and you’d be surprised how quickly they adopt a group mentality as their own. Every sophomore’s rush mantra is: “Please like me. Pick me. Choose me.” It’s no wonder that when you finally make it through to the other side, you’re so thankful a group has shown you kindness and taken away your uncertainty that you swear your allegiance before that devotion has been earned. And once you’ve become a member of that group, it’s hard to do anything else but defend it, because now you’re invested, and your position is tied to the social status of the group.
Whether convincing taps to join a society or recruiting new members to Greek organizations, we’re constantly selling ourselves here. Dartmouth’s social structure asks us to instinctively advocate for our groups. None of this is inherently negative. Humans by nature form communities. The danger lies in allowing groupthink to supersede our own judgment. Hazing, binge drinking, sexual assault — I believe our darkest social flaws can be traced back to the bystander problem.
On the other hand, Dartmouth alumni are famous for their loyalty. The same strength of community that can cause discordant factions can also foster deep and meaningful traditions that transgress class year. Visit Rauner Special Collections and it becomes obvious. Dartmouth teaches us to trust brother and sister and to support each other in our academic, social and professional endeavors.
A recent article in The New Yorker highlighted the entrepreneurial culture of Stanford University, citing its proximity to Silicon Valley as the primary cause. I believe that the environment in which you learn shapes what you learn and how it affects you. I can’t help but wonder what mindset Dartmouth has cultivated in me over the last four years.
The skills Dartmouth teaches us are interpersonal. We understand social hierarchies. Maybe that’s why Dartmouth graduates are famously successful in finance — we know how to ascend corporate ladders, and we’re fierce advocates of ourselves, our brothers and our sisters.
My hope for postgraduate life is that we can extend the same bonds of loyalty and trust beyond the boundaries of the organizations and brands we wore here to encompass the larger Dartmouth community. We may have learned camaraderie in small groups with obscure names, but in the “real world” where those titles no longer carry social currency, we will have to appeal to a greater identity — Dartmouth College — that has a scope beyond our little hamlet of Hanover.
I arrived at Dartmouth a cynic, but I’m leaving a skeptic. There is a world of difference between those two people, and I’m proud of that progress. That’s another lesson from my government coursework — there is no way but forward. You have to believe that things can get better, because if you don’t, then there’s nothing you can do, and what’s the point in that? If you’ve convinced yourself the sky is falling, there’s nothing left to do but throw up your hands and wait for the world to end. We have to believe in our own agency, because if we don’t, then there is only defeat.
At the Sustainability and Social Justice Dinner, Tucker Foundation Assistant Chaplain Kurt Nelson said, “Skepticism seeks progress; cynicism seeks self-protection.” I hope we always remain as skeptical and self-critical of ourselves and of Dartmouth as we’ve proven to be through every controversy this year. But I hope we never become cynical about this College on the Hill, about the transformative experiences we shared here, the communities we were welcomed into and the loyalties we forged. I hope we never become cynical about Dartmouth.
Jamila is the former executive editor of The Dartmouth that oversaw The Mirror.