Getting a Quality Education at Dartmouth

By Professor Jeffrey Hart

September 24, 2010

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it is possible, yes, possible, to get a college education at Dartmouth. The bad news is that the institutional Dartmouth will not tell you how to go about it. 

It’s as if she were the Mona Lisa, smiling faintly at her secret, her smile inviting you to guess the secret. Or maybe she, alma mater, is smiling because she has forgotten what her secret is. 

Several years ago I found myself in Providence, Rhode Island to debate someone about something at Brown University and had the pleasure of dinner with Brown’s president Vartan Gregorian, an almost supernaturally charming man. He had been a notable success as head of the New York Public Library, America’s leading institution of higher learning. 

I knew that Brown had absolutely no course requirements for its B.A. degree and that for this dubious reason had become something of an “in” college among hip students like Amy Carter.

So I asked President Gregorian about this. Wasn’t the situation really sort of crazy? To ask an eighteen year-old to design his own program de novo? After all, some of these eighteen year-olds have probably spent the last four years in high school majoring in the Nuclear Freeze or the History of Racism.

Now a man like President Gregorian had undoubtedly been asked just that question perhaps 25,000 times, by alumni, reporters, professors, parents, whatever, and, of course he had an answer. He said something like:

“You might well wonder about that. But we have made a study, and we find that our students do select patterns of courses that make sense. And, especially the best students, they tend to choose the most difficult courses. Nor do they neglect languages. The absence of requirements no doubt sounds strange, but our study shows that the approach works.”

Waaaaaal, I dunno. Isn’t this sort of the Black Box theory of education?

What’s in the Black Box causes the “system” to work, though we won’t tell you what’s in the Black Box. (And, shhh, there’s nothing in the Black Box.)

Now the system at Dartmouth isn’t exactly like the one at Brown, but it’s a lot more like it than would appear at first glance. You do have to have some competence in a foreign language, sort of. And there are those “distributive” requirements.

Yet the term “distributive requirements” really amounts to an oxymoron. In practice the “requirements” are so broadly drawn that you can satisfy them with just about anything at all.

Oh, I’m sure that official Dartmouth will point with pride at the “advisor” system. A professor will help you shape your program so that something decent comes out of it all. But we’re back at the Black Box. It’s an open secret that, once again, there’s nothing in the Black Box. These advisors don’t have any more of a theory about education than does the new Freshman. He can find the space where he’s supposed to sign your card.

So the entering Freshman is left with the ORC, which is about the size of a telephone directory for a smallish city. The ORC will not tell him  what an education is. In effect, you just put your $40,000 on the red or the black and let the big wheel spin for four years. But, in fact, there is an answer, and for a long time the answer was anything but a secret. With a little help, and like Diogenes with his lamp, you yourself can, so to speak, reinvent the wheel.

A notable Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth, Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey often expressed the matter succinctly, “The goal of education,” he would say, “is to form the Citizen. And the Citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-found his civilization.”

He meant that in quite large a sense. He did not mean that you had to master all the specialties you can think of. 

He meant that you need to be familiar with the large and indispensable components of your — this — civilization.

This certainly does not mean that you should not study other cultures and civilizations. It does mean that to be a Citizen of this one you should be aware of what it is and where it came from.

It can scarcely be challenged that the United States is part of the narrative of European history. It owes little or nothing to Confucius or Laotse or to Chief Shaka or to the Aztecs. At the margin it owes a bit to the American Indians, but not a great deal — corn, tobacco, some legendary material. But Europe is overwhelmingly the source. And some parts of Europe more than others: Our language, legal tradition, political arrangements derive, and demonstrably so, from England.

There have been many ways of answering the question, “What is Europe?” But a handy way to think of the matter is the paradigm of “Athens” and “Jerusalem.” In this paradigm, those terms designate both the two cities we have all heard of, and also two kinds of mind.

The tradition designated “Athens” is associated with philosophy and with critical exercise of mind. The tradition associated with “Jerusalem” is associated with monotheism. 

The two traditions interact, sometimes fuse, and there exists a dynamic tension between them. Many have argued that it is just this tension that has rendered Western civilization so dynamic down through the centuries. 

So, with this paradigm before you, and with the countless questions it might raise, you can begin to fathom the secrets of the ORC.

On the side of “Athens” you will want to learn something about Homer, who in many ways laid the basis of Greek philosophy, and you will need to meet Plato, Aristotle, the Greek dramatists, historians, architects and sculptors.

Over in “Jerusalem” you will find the epic account of the career of monotheism as it worked its way out in history. The scriptures like Homer, have their epic heroes, and, like the Greek tradition in some ways they refine and internalize the epic virtues. “Athens” and “Jerusalem” interact and much flows from the interaction. 

You will follow all of this down through the centuries, through Virgil and Augustine, and Dante, in Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Montaigne, Moliere, Voltaire, Goethe and on to modernity. “The best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold called it. The mind of Europe as T.S. Eliot put it, “from Homer to the present.”

Of course many things can be added to the basic “Athens” and “Jerusalem” paradigm. You will want to select decent courses in American and European history. And courses in the history of art, of music, of philosophy.

Down the road, you might become a student of comparative civilization. China, of course, represents the other great civilization, with, to be sure, apparently a different agenda. 

Why did the Chinese, though advanced in science, in effect remain behind their Great Wall, why did the Europeans take to the seas in their frail ships?

Or why is Homer’s Odysseus such an enormous figure in Western literature, most recently reincarnated by Joyce, Pound, and Derek Walcott?

You might well develop an interest in barbarism and primitivism, and study even the peoples who have no consequential history at all, strictly speaking, but interesting customs, rites, etc. Anthropology surely has a place in the house of intellect. 

But the main job in getting a college education is to make sure the large essential parts are firmly in place, after which you can build upon them. 

The courses you need are right there in the ORC, often surrounded by nonessentials and even outright garbage. Dartmouth will not tell you what the right courses are, but then that doesn’t matter—because I have just done so.