‘Member Progress & Tradition?

Conservatives like to ask why something exists before destroying it.

Conservatives like to ask why something exists before destroying it.

‘Member AD? ‘Member the Hood? ‘Member pledge term? ‘Member hard alcohol? ‘Member kegs? ‘Member hazing? ‘Member Tubestock?  ‘Member senior canes? ‘Member the Dartmouth Indian? ‘Member when there were no women at Dartmouth? ‘Member freshmen beanies? ‘Member Chapel? ‘Member the Lone Pine? Just as the inhabitants of South Park, Colorado revel in ‘membering many things, Dartmouth students have always lived to some extent in the past. The College’s remote location may enhance this phenomenon, though it is hardly unique to Dartmouth.

It is easy to draw a dichotomy between those who champion the inevitable march of progress and those who stand beside Buckley, standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” The Review has a proud history of yelling “Stop!” and Dartmouth students have often formed the vanguard of the progressive cause. The case of the Dartmouth Indian illustrates this well: Dartmouth banned the Indian in a perfect example of institutional, progressive virtue signaling, while The Review stood by it for the sake of tradition. This eternal battle between progress and tradition, while a compelling narrative for both sides, is a false dichotomy.

Progressivism, as G.K. Chesterton used to say, is defined as an inherently forward-looking ideology. It therefore has a definite goal in mind, an end towards which the progressive strives against all obstacles. One of those obstacles is tradition. Tradition is an inherently democratic ideal that runs contrary to the single-minded absolutism of progressivism. G.K. Chesterton said tradition, “is the democracy of the dead.” True traditionalism is not a drive to achieve an end, it is a means with inherent value. It seeks to systematize the inheritance of knowledge, and traditional practices often serve concrete societal and individual functions, even if these functions are not immediately apparent.

Dartmouth President John George Kemeny was a true progressive. He was an idealist who worked towards the fulfillment of those ideals and did not heed any attempts to stop him. He led the push for coeducation and brought many minority students to Dartmouth. Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins was a traditionalist. His deference to the values of his working-class parents, his mentors at Dartmouth, and the generations of Dartmouth men before him helped him bring Dartmouth into the twentieth century. Under his traditional guidance, Dartmouth was on the forefront of the war effort in both world wars and the College built Baker Library.

Real progressivism and traditionalism are not inherently contradictory, although one is by nature totalitarian and the other democratic. This conflict of nature does not account for the bitter rivalry that is the current hallmark of their relation. The true problem is that progressivism and tradition have strayed from their true meanings. Both have become ends within themselves, which has rendered their meaning and their virtue obsolete.

In part because progressivism has become a socially valuable trait, and in part because progressivism is an easy pathway to power, progress has become the ultimate goal for progressives, creating a self-perpetuating power structure. In opposition to the exclusion of tradition from progressive-dominated operations, traditionalists have ceased to use traditions as a means to an external end begun treating tradition as a self-contained goal.

Hazing, an infamous specimen of tradition, is an interesting case. A proper progressive goal would be the integration of new members of a community. A proper traditionalist methodology would be to examine past mechanisms of integration and select those which performed a definite function while eliminating those which only caused harm. At Dartmouth, we see progressives demanding the abolition of all forms of initiation, even if they serve a tangible function. Those who oppose this trend tend not to discriminate between useful and superfluous practices. The intellectual climate of partisanship and absolutism does not lend itself to a practical resolution of the issue. The result is that groups eliminate many positive yet public practices, while they continue negative, private hazing rituals.

Both true progressivism and true traditionalism are essential elements in a healthy society, but as we have seen, it is difficult for them to coexist. Progressivism carries with it more danger and greater rewards, while tradition protects society from major disturbances. While we must ultimately work towards a harmony of tradition and progress, tradition is an indispensable good, whereas progress tends to favor despots.