The Dartmouth

This article appeared in The Dartmouth on 5 March 1999

Vox Clamantis

Rising Reputation and Intellectual Mediocrity


By William C. Dowling '66

Having been at Dartmouth during the countercultural '60s, when fraternities were a negligible presence on campus, I've had no opinion about them one way or the other.

In listening to the defenders of frats over the last few weeks, though, I've come to see that the controversy is masking a deeper issue.

Dartmouth has always had -- we all know this is true: it's the wince in the night of every Dartmouth graduate -- a tradition of intellectual mediocrity. This came home to me most forcibly some years ago when I was administering Rhodes Scholar nominations at Harvard. Harvard would routinely turn out five to six Rhodes a year. Dartmouth would be lucky to get one or two a decade.

Still, Rhodes aren't a measure of anything very important. What is important is that we've always assumed that the other Ivies were ordained to turn out alumni who mattered in American society. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and even Columbia and Brown could graduate the future Nobel prize winners and novelists and Secretaries of State. We'd turn out the stockbrokers and urologists and guys who were a barrel of laughs in the locker room of the local country club. If it came to a showdown -- where Harvard was pointing to John Adams, say, or Teddy Roosevelt or T. S. Eliot or John Updike or Leonard Bernstein -- we could always try talking a bit more loudly about Dr. Seuss.

The frat controversy has made it excruciatingly clear that popular perception had it right for once. The tradition of intellectual mediocrity really has been due to Dartmouth's reputation, since the days of the Hopkins presidency, for having an ethos dominated by beer-swilling louts. Whether or not the reputation is deserved is a separate issue. The point is that the voice of this "tradition" -- the Hooray Harrys, as the British call them, of a thousand country club locker rooms -- is now dominating the controversy. (And, if the statistics on undergraduate opinion are correct, several thousand more Hooray-Harrys-in-the-making presently on campus.)

If President Wright and the Trustees have the courage to hold to their present course, Dartmouth will over the next 50 years draw many more applicants of the sort to which it has too seldom had access: students with the extra dimension of talent and intelligence and originality that makes people matter in later life. The paradox is that, as these young people graduate and go out into the world, and as the reputation of the school rises proportionally, even the Hooray Harrys in their country club locker rooms will feel a little bit prouder of having gone to Dartmouth.


Copyright © 1999 The Dartmouth, Inc.