Many Thousand Sunsets

One sunset at Dartmouth, over Baker Library.

One sunset at Dartmouth, over Baker Library.

When John Ledyard took his last stroll to the banks of the Connecticut in 1773, he probably felt his Dartmouth dream dying as he walked. During his year as a student at the newborn college, Ledyard had constantly pushed the limits of the President Wheelock’s stern, Evangelical vision for the school. He left the campus without warning from August through September, and he returned with sacks of beads and feathers he used to fashion costumes for himself and his classmates (perhaps an early precursor of flair?). When mid-winter came around, he departed Hanover again, this time with a group of students in tow, to begin an expedition through what is now the Second College Grant (surely a forerunner of Dartmouth’s freshman trips?). Ledyard’s lifestyle inevitably lost out to Wheelock’s limits, and Ledyard left the campus in a canoe of his own making. The story of his time at Dartmouth was one of disillusionment—all the energy and hope he had entered with were quashed by the time he made it out.

These days, not too many students leave Dartmouth in Ledyard’s dramatic fashion, but many of us share his dejected spirit in our final days as undergrads. The Class of 2016 in particular has witnessed an arc of events so stark that many soon-to-be-grads have a clear sense of Dartmouth’s downward trajectory. Andrew Lohse’s exposé of Greek hazing came out in Rolling Stone in the spring of 2012, three days before the ‘16s received their admissions letters, and the shock of that moment has been repeated endlessly over the past four years. Dartmouth has seen protests (Dimensions, Freedom Budget, Black Lives Matter), new limits from Parkhurst (the six-week ban, derecognized houses, and much of MDF), and academic decline (sliding in the U.S. News ranking, losing our R1 research certification). Few of us have ever considered leaving Dartmouth behind; there’s a stellar degree at the end of this gloomy rainbow, and plenty of friends to join us along the way. But many of us have felt like Ledyard within our own minds, ready to leave our dream of Dartmouth behind, even while we keep working toward graduation.

Of course, the feeling that everything always gets worse isn’t new. The four years we spend at Dartmouth are a microcosm of the human life cycle, so naturally we move from youthful optimism toward fogey-style cynicism by the time we make it out. One way of coping with this tendency is to embrace the change we see around us. Aaron Pellowski ’15 summed up this view last spring in “Nobody Rages, Ever,” published in The Dartmouth. “As some things get steadily worse, other things get steadily better,” Pellowski wrote, saying that it’d be insane to expect things to stay the same throughout our time as undergrads. When I first read his column, the idea that we should suppress our gut reaction about Dartmouth’s direction struck me as unhelpful. Obviously a school like Dartmouth is in constant flux, but surely we have a responsibility to discern between good changes and bad ones. Looking out over the Dartmouth landscape to get a sense of what each change means for students is the mission of The Dartmouth Review.

About one week ago however, I had an experience that made me take a big step in Pellowski’s direction. Walking through the library on Friday, February 26, I saw ‘18s and ‘19s gathered in groups, having just received their assignments in the new housing system. When Parkhurst first announced its plan for student houses à​​ la Harvard, I doubted that they would be able to recreate the richness of community that dorms had in the old days, or come close to rivaling the bonds created in the Greek system. But the crowds of underclassmen I met in the library seemed not only excited to know where they’d be living next year, but genuinely proud of their new affiliations. Watching students from each house sport their respective colored scarves reminded me of fall-term sophomores strolling around in distinctive costumes and Greek-branded gear—another tradition that the ‘16s were the last to participate in. The new housing system might be insufficient after all. But if the underclassmen shared my automatic skepticism, they would have no chance of engaging their new houses in a way that enables whatever good they do stand to bring about.

Realizing that we should keep an optimistic spirit in the face of uncertain change should be the endpoint of our arc as Dartmouth students. The closing lines of one traditional Dartmouth song make this point in a striking way. “See, by the light of many thousand sunsets, Dartmouth undying like a vision starts.” When Franklin McDuffee ’21 penned “Dartmouth Undying,” it’s possible that he meant the line “many thousand sunsets” to simply represent the passing of time. But in another sense, those thousands of sunsets can be understood to represent the dying of each individual student’s Dartmouth dream as he approaches graduation. It’s poignant, then, that this is the moment when Dartmouth undying strikes us like a vision. As we reckon with the ways that our Dartmouth experience may have changed for the worse, we get a reaffirming sense of how Dartmouth’s fundamentals, the undying part of the College, will continue on.

It’s possible that Ledyard got this sense after departing—perhaps Dartmouth’s spell remained on him as he spent the rest of his life as a merchant sailor, traveling ‘round the girdled earth. But a nostalgic appreciation of Dartmouth shouldn’t be enough for us. The Dartmouth graduates of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s experienced the flux of Vietnam, race struggles, and coeducation, yet on top of their enduring loyalty they’ve managed to become the most active stewards of the College today. The Class of 2016 and all others who have witnessed Dartmouth’s decline in recent years should follow this example. Under the light of what we’ve experienced, we should see the promising parts of Dartmouth that will endure, and do our best to protect and support them until graduation and onward.