A Moral Education? TDR Interviews Rev. Richard Crocker

By Charles S. Dameron

November 7, 2010

Reverend Crocker is Dean of the Tucker Foundation.TDR: I’m thinking about this quote that President Dickey used in his oral history at Rauner Library. He mentions something that Beardsley Ruml, one of the Dartmouth trustees who helped him to establish the Tucker Foundation, told Dickey as they were working on the foundation’s charter. Ruml said that the charter ought to say, “There’s a choice before men, and the College has made a choice to be committed to the good, rather than the evil.” Ruml told Dickey, “Don’t say anything more than that; men will understand that fifty years from now, as they understood it two thousand years before.”

Does that statement resonate with you today? Do you think that the Tucker Foundation and the College conceive of their mission that way, committing themselves to the good?

Rev. Dr. Crocker: That statement is also almost quoted in Dickey’s article in the Atlantic Monthly [“Conscience and the Undergraduate,” April 1955] about founding the Tucker Foundation. He uses that phrase in the article, and says that the College is committed to the idea that there is good and evil, and that we exist to encourage the choice for good. That’s a paraphrase. But he didn’t keep the Charter there. He said that we exist to encourage the moral and spiritual work of Dartmouth College, and that may be the moral and spiritual work — to encourage people to align themselves with the forces of good rather than the forces of evil.

I think this was very easy for a post-World War II president to say because there have rarely been such instances in history where the choice between good and evil seemed so simple as in World War II. It’s a lot more complex than that, but it seemed so simple to most people, and for fifty years it has seemed simple. It still seems simple to many people.

Does it resonate with me? Yes it still does resonate with me, because I believe in good and evil. But I have found, in discussing the Dickey article with my staff and others, that that phrase has been problematic for some people. I think that younger people have difficulty with it; the distinction is not nearly as clear.

TDR: Why is that, in your opinion?

Crocker: I think it’s because they’ve experienced a much more muddled world, and they’ve experienced people taking actions in the name of the good that were self-destructive, contradictory, and confusing.

TDR: Although you discuss it with the Tucker staff —

Crocker: And the Board of Visitors —

TDR: And the Board of Visitors, in what arenas do you still see that statement about good and evil motivating the work of the Foundation?

Crocker: I think that the only self-evident good to which the Tucker Foundation is clearly devoted is service, and that somehow service has come to be seen as unambiguously good. That is the avenue by which we promote the good. My personal view is more complicated than that, but I think that that’s the way we sell ourselves, and that’s the way we think that we continue to carry out the legacy of Tucker and the charge of Dickey. By and large, we promote service, and service is good. I think that when people start engaging in service, they have more questions about it, about whether they’re actually doing any good. But on a popular level, service is good.

“If I posed to the Board of Trustees…the question: ‘does Dartmouth today have any moral and spiritual work to do?’ I think that there would be a resounding silence in the room.”TDR: Dickey founded the Tucker Foundation because he was concerned about the loss of institutional purpose that accompanied the secularization of education, the specialization of academia, a rise in moral relativism. If you think that Dickey’s assessment is valid, do you think that these phenomena did indeed help to strip Dartmouth of some of its institutional purpose in the 20th Century? And what role has Tucker had as an effective counterweight to that? Or is it a more complicated picture?

Crocker: President Dickey, in his article, was talking about Dartmouth as one of a class of colleges – not particularly about Dartmouth. In fact, he was talking about the Tucker Foundation as a significant model for combating that malaise and that vapidness at the center of our enterprise, which he saw affecting a whole class of colleges in the United States, particularly those secular, private institutions like Dartmouth that were originally very religiously oriented and had gradually become less religiously-oriented, more diverse, more driven by market forces than by a sense of purpose. And he saw that as a danger. It was a danger, and it is a danger.

So, if I posed to the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College — if I were allowed to speak to them, which I’m not, but if I were and were able to ask them — the question: the Tucker Foundation was founded to further the moral and spiritual work of Dartmouth College; does Dartmouth today have any moral and spiritual work to do? I think that there would be a resounding silence in the room. There would be no easy way or practical way or possible way to have them speak about that subject. My guess is that they would feel very uncomfortable even talking about it. I might be wrong, but that’s my guess, because I experience everyone else being uncomfortable talking about it. Even our own staff is uncomfortable talking about it.

President Dickey saw the Tucker Foundation as a way of institutionalizing the moral and spiritual concern that President Tucker had exemplified in a very positive way. President Tucker was for Dickey, and for many others, a person who exemplified moral and spiritual concern in a broad, constructive way that he thought would be a model. He thought that this should continue, that there should be a voice like his, and support for a voice like his, at the center of the College. And that’s why it was called a foundation. It was to be a foundation for Dartmouth’s work.

Instead, of course, as time has passed, different presidents have had different visions. It’s really only President Dickey who saw the Tucker Foundation in that central role. Every other president has supported Tucker, but in a more indirect way. So the reporting relationship of the Dean of the Tucker Foundation moved after President Dickey retired, and President Kemeny and then McLaughlin took over — ever since, the reporting relationship has not been to the president. So, I think this was a particular concern of President Dickey’s, which has not disappeared, but has become more and more peripheral to the work of the College. I know from my conversations with President Kim that he feels that this “moral and spiritual work,” that the language is important. He supports it. What he would mean by it, I’m not sure. I’ve not had a discussion in which that was filled out.

But I think that, in general, he feels that it’s important. I, of course, feel that it’s important as well. But it is controversial. It is problematic to speak in terms that draw people in. President Tucker was notable for being able to do that, but he was speaking at a time when there was a greater consensus than now about those values.

TDR: Dickey often talked about dual institutional purpose — that the school should confer both competence and conscience. Is it your sense now that Dartmouth is still doing that? Did it ever do that, even during Dickey’s time?

Crocker: I can’t really talk about Dickey’s time; I don’t know. I think there are a couple of ways to approach this. First, let’s talk about now. There is no doubt in my mind that many students at Dartmouth are driven in their ambitions and abilities by claims of conscience. I think many of these students find outlets at Dartmouth, in the Tucker Foundation and at other places, and their vocations are chosen with those values in mind. I think the fact that we have a relatively high number of students who are interested in Teach for America, and the Peace Corps, and other kinds of NGO work shows that those kinds of values are still motivating a significant number of students at Dartmouth, and I’m very proud of that fact, that that continues to be the case.

Is that the dominant motivator? I don’t think so. It’s not something that is institutionally embedded. It’s the fact that students who come with those kinds of values to begin with do find them supported here — not inculcated, but supported. I’m glad that they’re supported.

But there’s a problematic feature here that is just basic that we should understand, talking about this. Dartmouth’s heritage is unique in the Ivies and many colleges of its stature. It’s unique, and it’s uniquely problematic. It’s unique because, to my knowledge, none of the other Ivies or the East Coast colleges had as an explicit purpose a missionary purpose, founded to promote Christianity among the pagans — explicit. And to train ministers to minister to them, and English and other youth thrown in as well.

That explicit purpose of being a missionary college in the wilderness was very important to President Wheelock, but became more problematic thereafter, and has become a very problematic heritage for the College to embrace, even to acknowledge. So, Dartmouth has had unique problems in interpreting its contemporary identity in a way that both embraces its past and makes it useful for its current aspirations and ambitions. This shows up in smaller ways, like disputes about the Indian symbol. But it also shows up in big ways, too, about our inability to really talk about our moral purpose. That comes immediately contaminated with a particular kind of missionary activity. 

TDR: In what way do you think we could draw upon our history, articulate a version of our history that speaks to a contemporary moral purpose? 

Crocker: Well that’s why I think President Tucker was so important, and why President Dickey saw him as so important, and why President Kim sees him as so important, and others — because he was really the linchpin between the past and our present and our future. He was a Dartmouth graduate, Calvinist minister, Presbyterian Congregational, who took on some of the narrower tenets of that Calvinistic perspective, and actually was accused of heresy and tried for it by the seminary in which he was teaching [see our article on the Andover Controversy], and finally acquitted, but at some cost to himself and others. So he brought the heritage and he brought the reaction against it.

And his own perspective was, as I said, very broad and it incorporated a lot of social gospel activity. He founded a settlement house in Boston, the South End House. He brought social concern; he brought a broad religious perspective, which for his time was extremely inclusive. And I think that he provides the linchpin from Eleazar Wheelock to now. It’s a broader faith than had been commonly articulated, more inclusive.

One of the things that President Tucker did — because Chapel was required twice on Sunday, and then there were the daily Vesper services at which he spoke — he permitted Episcopalians, for the first time, to worship in their own church on Sunday, rather than in Rollins Chapel. That was a broadening move. It was a symbol of things to come, that diversity could be incorporated into our community in a way that wasn’t destructive or disruptive.

We can make a case, or try to make a case, that the College was attempting to promote diversity from the beginning, because it was a place for Indians and English and other youth. Well, of course that’s not true. Yes, it wanted to educate Native American students, but the point of that education was to incorporate them into a culture that was not their own, that was essentially being foisted upon them. The success of that endeavor was always very spotty.

So to try to take the founding and make it a blueprint for a diverse institution is a very hard thing to do. President Tucker enabled the College to do that. And that heritage continues to be reflected in the Tucker Foundation. We are very broad; we support all the religious groups. A problem for Tucker comes when, okay, we recognize all these religious groups; we work with them in campus ministries, and so on. But what do we do with the groups that claim a very particular point of view, that are as certain of their truth as Eleazar Wheelock was? How do we affirm that kind of particularism in a college that is devoted to a really relativistic perspective — which it is? And the answer to that is the same way that I think the nation has done it — to concentrate on procedural issues. As long as we have a framework that is liberal in process, that doesn’t touch upon what you believe, just how you act. And you can have as particularistic beliefs as you want, just as long as you follow the rules like everybody else, the rules that prevent you from imposing those beliefs on other people. And we don’t talk, really, about the substance of claims anymore. We only talk about the process. And I don’t think Dartmouth is any different from all the other colleges of its kind in that way. It is different from Notre Dame, but not from Brown or Princeton.

TDR: It’s interesting that you say the College has a ‘relativistic perspective’ — how would Tucker feel about that?

Crocker: I think Tucker would be stretched by it, but he would have to admit that the trajectory of his own thought was leading him in that direction. It didn’t take him there because he was a devoted Christian. But among his last words at the Chapel, near the end of his time here, he closed by saying: “I make no plea for any special religion. But I do make a plea for the religious spirit.” That was where he’s leading. So he continued to see an importance in the religious spirit. I think now that those people who affirm a kind of spirituality are a significant portion of our community, but by no means a dominant part of our community. It’s one option among others.

TDR: This may be rehashing things that we’ve already talked about, but do you think that, in terms of the relative distribution of Dartmouth students, spirituality is a part of their education?

Crocker: It varies. I talk with a lot of people, and I find that I can find a genuine and important connection with many, many students, only some of whom have any overt interest in religion or spirituality. Many of them would say they have no interest, but that doesn’t prevent a kind of important human connection, which I might consider spiritual. And I might encourage them to consider it that way, too. The language isn’t there for many people.

TDR: It seems that people are uncomfortable talking about morality or moral purpose. Is that a necessary consequence of the College being a secular institution? Does that automatically mean that it becomes uncomfortable addressing truth questions about the world?      

Crocker: Yes, I think it does. It is much easier to deal with questions that are based upon a method of arriving at consensus — the scientific method. It’s much easier for the College to devote itself to those questions, and I think that even President Kim, in his emphasis on evidence-based approaches to everything is saying that, “Okay, there’s a rational method for dealing with almost everything.” And I think that we’re much more comfortable as an institution with that. But there’s an acknowledgement by many people that there’s another dimension that’s not as subject to that kind of inquiry as evidence-based research is. So your question is — what?

TDR: As the College became expressly secular, did we necessarily lose our idea of what is a moral institution or a moral purpose for Dartmouth College?

Crocker: I think it becomes much harder to talk about. I would distinguish between two things in the view of secularity; it’s a confused view. One view of secularity means that there is room at the table for all voices, and that’s a view of secularity that I would embrace. But there’s another view of secularity that is secularism, which means that there is a privileged voice at the table that rules out other voices. And that kind of secularism becomes confused with ‘secular’ all the time.

So, at times, people who might have a religious or spiritual perspective on truth are ruled out of order, not allowed. In truth, of course, their deepest convictions ought to be at the table with everybody else’s. But, it becomes difficult to talk about.

Does that mean the College has no moral values? No, I think the College does have moral values, but it’s hard to talk about them. We know that we have them when a crisis arises and we feel that we must act in a particular way. The question of apartheid in the Eighties [in which the College pursued a disinvestment policy from enterprises associated with the apartheid government in South Africa] was not simply an economic question; it was a moral question. The College had a really difficult time — more difficult than some other places — in addressing the moral issue, confusing it with the economic issue, and asking itself which kind of perspective it should use in approaching this question.

I think we see it in student conduct issues. There are some kinds of behavior that we would consider immoral — not sexual ones, unless it involves sexual assault. Sexual assault is considered immoral, and certain other kinds of behavior are considered immoral, particularly plagiarism. So there are certain moral values that the College has which it acknowledges in particular crises that occur, but which it has a hard time justifying rationally or existentially.

Sexual assault hurts somebody else, which is the standard liberal answer, right? And I don’t disagree with that — hurting somebody else is bad. The plagiarism thing is really a statement that the most important commodity at place like this is ideas. It’s what people prize, and to steal someone’s ideas is to commit a capital crime. That’s where that comes from, that’s what our treasure is.

But talking about other kinds of issues is really difficult for people here, and not just here. People in institutions like this. It’s not hard to talk about it at Liberty University, not hard at all. But most people at Dartmouth would not find that environment one that they liked very much.

TDR: On a personal level, you’ve been talking the last few weeks in your sermons at Rollins Chapel about “big questions.” Is it your sense, from what you see of the Dartmouth academic experience, that Dartmouth is a place that fosters student pursuit of the big questions? What’s your sense of that?

Crocker: I think that there are some subjects which prompt and promote the pursuit of big questions, and where faculty who are teaching those subjects feel a natural affinity and connection with raising them, discussing them. And there are other subjects where it doesn’t seem important or relevant, and in those subjects it would even seem inappropriate to talk about big questions other than ones that are essentially material. And there are some big questions that can be discussed from a materialistic perspective. But the big questions I’m talking about in the sermons you mentioned are ones that I think relatively few academic classes would devote a lot of attention to. Some would.

So the question is: does Dartmouth promote this? In limited ways, yes.

TDR: Do you think Dartmouth could do better?

Crocker: I think it could do better. I mean, this is the hunger that alumni are constantly harping on when they talk about the Great Issues classes. They have this idea that during President Dickey’s time, there was this College-wide opportunity to talk about big questions. Now whether that’s real or nostalgic, I don’t know. I think that the big questions of the Dickey era were mainly political ones, and I’m not sure to what extent they addressed the questions that I would consider — although there are certainly big political questions as well.

But I think that there’s a lot of resistance among faculty to reintroducing such a concept because they see complexities with it; they see the fact that during Dickey’s time, it was a huge deal to have these people — ambassadors et cetera — show up here. I mean, this was a much more isolated place then. And of course, whether or not Great Issues should be built now on bringing people in to talk about issues when we can watch them on YouTube anytime, it’s a legitimate question.

But I think that the hunger…you can always depend upon. Just as the Republicans can always depend upon lower taxes for drawing forth an emotional response, for Dartmouth’s alums of a certain era, Great Issues will bring forth a similar response. Because there was a sense that big questions were being addressed there — not peripherally, but centrally in the institution. 

TDR: Do you think that in the humanities — the disciplines that would traditionally seek the big questions — do you think they’re still doing that at Dartmouth? Or is there a shyness even there, even in those disciplines that are naturally geared toward those questions?

Crocker: My answer to that is obviously not the same as a student’s would be, who has actually taken some of these classes. I only know by reputation, occasional interaction with these people, hearsay. But my sense is that there are professors in the humanities and elsewhere who feel very comfortable talking about these kinds of questions, and encouraging students to think about them and discuss them. I think it’s a minority of faculty, but there are definitely some who do that.

For many others, however, their idea of the professoriate is linked to a kind of specialized knowledge, even in the humanities. What they feel comfortable talking about is their specialized knowledge. And their specialization is often very bounded, and anything that goes beyond that specialization…it’s not that they feel such questions aren’t important, it’s that they feel they aren’t competent. Their competence is very specialized. And I think that many professors are very reluctant to cross those boundaries.

TDR: In your mind, what are the big questions facing Dartmouth institutionally today? What do you think are the big, unresolved moral issues that the College is facing today?

Crocker: Purpose, what is our purpose as an institution? Our mission statement, created by President Wright, tells us that we’re training the most talented students of today to be the most important leaders of tomorrow. There is a kind of elitism that is implied in that statement, which I think the College is still having trouble dealing with. One of the big questions would be: to what extent are we really an accessible institution for everyone? We like to think our need-blind admission policy solves that problem, but it really doesn’t. Because even though it’s a good thing to have a need-blind admission policy, it is still the case that a majority of our students come from a very economically privileged place. The College requires that. To go on as an institution, it requires that, with its present economic resources.

So, to what extent Dartmouth really is an accessible place to train the most talented students of today to be the leaders of tomorrow is a practical and moral question, if that really is its purpose.

And then another unresolved question, in addition to that, is: to what extent is the education that happens here a holistic education? Is it primarily an education that occurs in the classroom? Or is it, as we say, an education that occurs holistically? And if so, what are the values implicit in the non-academic part of the education that occurs here? And right now I think that is a big void. There are places at the College that may have a clear answer to that, and one of them might be the sports teams. I think most college sports teams have a clear set of values that they articulate. But I’m not sure to what extent those values are really examined, and to what extent they are really widely shared, and to what extent they should be.

I think that whole part of what happens outside the classroom at Dartmouth is relatively unexamined in terms of its purpose.

TDR: Do you think that someone who wanted to examine it would get a positive reception from alumni, administrators, faculty?

Crocker: I think that such an effort would have a very mixed reception. I don’t think that it would be universally opposed; neither would it be universally embraced. If it were undertaken…you know, part of the reaccreditation process that we’re going through now attempts to deal with this question, but it’s certainly a secondary part. And I think the answer for us and for most places — not just Dartmouth — as long as there is a variety of activities maintained for student interest, that’s really all we ask. And we don’t require much more than that, just a variety. Which is, once again, the liberal answer to this problem. I’m not sure we have a better answer to it. I make it sound as if we do, but I’m not sure if I believe that, and this may be all we can do.

TDR: Dr. Crocker, thank you for your time.