Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dartmouth: The Animal House of the Ivy League

Jim Yong Kim, the president of Dartmouth College in Hanover, MA, was recently tapped by Barack Obama to head the World Bank.  After reading Janet Reitman's article in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone, Kim may want to leave Hanover as soon as possible.  But if he has any moral courage, he will stay at Dartmouth and clean up the mess.

It appears that Kim has been presiding over an institution of smart, upper-middle class frat boys whose hazing practices speak volumes about the the moral sensibilities of some of the country's best and brightest young minds.  Eleazar Wheelock is not happy.

Reitman's article focuses on Andrew Lohse, a frat boy who blew the whistle on his brothers by writing an op-ed in a Dartmouth student newspaper criticizing the college's fraternity system.  I imagine the stuff Lohse describes in the article happens at many colleges, but it seems particularly disturbing at a place like Dartmouth.  And it is taking place under Kim's watch.

I am sure there is another side to the story.  I am sure that there are many well-meaning and morally upright students at Dartmouth.  I don't want to paint with a broad brush.  But rather than being outraged over what is going on at Dartmouth, we should feel sorry for what is happening to some of its students.  The fraternity system is cult-like.  The kind of hazing going on in Hanover is destroying students' souls.  The fraternity system--which dominates campus extracurricular life--fosters a culture of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and loneliness.  The psychological impact of this culture must have long term effects on the lives of those involved. This kind of inhumane activity happens at a liberal arts college where I imagine a lot of discussion takes place in the classrooms about what it means to be a human being.  Dartmouth needs a president--whether it be Kim or someone else--that will do something about these hazing traditions.

Here is a taste of the lengthy Rolling Stone article:

Long before Andrew Lohse became a pariah at Dartmouth College, he was just another scarily accomplished teenager with lofty ambitions. Five feet 10 with large blue eyes and the kind of sweet-faced demeanor that always earned him a pass, he grew up in the not-quite-rural, not-quite-suburban, decidedly middle-class town of Branchburg, New Jersey, and attended a public school where he made mostly A's, scored 2190 on his SATs and compiled an exhaustive list of extracurricular activities that included varsity lacrosse, model U.N. (he was president), National Honor Society, band, orchestra, Spanish club, debate and – on weekends – a special pre-college program at the Manhattan School of Music, where he received a degree in jazz bass. He also wrote songs; gigged semiprofessionally at restaurants throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; played drums for a rock band; chased, and conquered, numerous girls; and by his high school graduation, in 2008, had reached the pinnacle of adolescent cool by dating "this really hot skanky cheerleader," as he puts it.

That fall, he enrolled at Dartmouth, where he had wanted to go for as long as he could remember. His late grandfather, Austin Lohse, had played football and lacrosse for Big Green, and both Andrew and his older brother, Jon, a Dartmouth junior, idolized him as the embodiment of the high-achieving, hard-drinking, fraternal ethos of the Dartmouth Man, or what Lohse calls a "true bro." A Dartmouth Man is a specific type of creature, and when I ask Lohse what constitutes true bro-ness, he provides an idealized portrait of white-male privilege: "good-looking, preppy, charismatic, excellent at cocktail parties, masculine, intelligent, wealthy (or soon to become so), a little bit rough around the edges" – not, in other words, a "douchey, superpolished Yalie."

A true bro, Lohse adds, can also drink inhuman amounts of beer, vomit profusely and keep on going, and perform a number of other hard-partying feats – Dartmouth provided the real-life inspiration for Animal House – that most people, including virtually all of Lohse's high school friends, would find astounding. This, like the high salaries that Dartmouth graduates command – the sixth-highest in the country, according to the most recent estimates – is a point of pride. "We win," is how one of Lohse's former buddies puts it.

On January 25th, Andrew Lohse took a major detour from the winning streak he'd been on for most of his life when, breaking with the Dartmouth code of omertà, he detailed some of the choicest bits of his college experience in an op-ed for the student paper The Dartmouth. "I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges' ass cracks... among other abuses," he wrote. He accused Dartmouth's storied Greek system Р17 fraternities, 11 sororities and three coed houses, to which roughly half of the student body belongs Рof perpetuating a culture of "pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault," as well as an "intoxicating nihilism" that dominates campus social life. "One of the things I've learned at Dartmouth Рone thing that sets a psychological precedent for many Dartmouth men Рis that good people can do awful things to one another for absolutely no reason," he said. "Fraternity life is at the core of the college's human and cultural dysfunctions." Lohse concluded by recommending that Dartmouth overhaul its Greek system, and perhaps get rid of fraternities entirely....

The more I read stuff like this, the more I am convinced that the future of our democracy is to be found in lower-middle class kids who have been raised with a proper work-ethic, a commitment to decency and morality, and a sense of life's limits.  (I am borrowing a lot of this from Christopher Lasch--especially The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites).  Many of these kids do not have the test scores to get into Dartmouth or else don't want to be there. If Reitman's article is correct, it seems that many Dartmouth students are pursuing happiness in a way that degrades themselves and other human beings and does little to contribute to the revival of our democratic culture.  I'll put my hope in a less-privileged kid from a working class or lower-middle class home with a liberal arts degree.