Column: The Curiosity Quotient Missing in Action at Dartmouth

  • A protest rally about Vietnam, sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society, taking place at Dartmouth Hall prior to General Lewis B. Hershey's April 14, 1966, visit. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library) Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

  • Anti-apartheid protestors rally on the Dartmouth College Green in Hanover, N.H., in an undated photograph. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 12/8/2018 10:30:03 PM
Modified: 12/8/2018 10:30:05 PM

In the late 1960s, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, students belonging to the Dartmouth Classics Club staged, among other activities, a daylong forum on the Greek historian Thucydides’ account of disastrous Sicilian Expedition that was conducted by Athens in the last quarter of the 5th century B.C. The topic for debate and discussion was the extent to which a comparison between 5th century Athens and contemporary America was relevant. What could be learned from the Athenian experience to help us better understand and even avoid its catastrophic miscalculations? The Drake Room of the Hopkins Center, the site chosen for this forum, was packed with highly vocal undergraduates.

Such an event seems inconceivable today, even though America remains mired in conflicts in the Near East that continue to defy resolution, and at home the institutions and traditional values of our democracy are being sorely tested. To be sure, it may be argued that the undergraduates who attended the forum on the Sicilian Expedition, facing the grim possibility of being drafted into military service in Vietnam, had perforce to be politically alert and well informed. But it must also be recognized, on the other hand, that the Dartmouth students of the ’80s who erected shanties on the green to protest the college’s investment policies that appeared to support apartheid in South Africa acted spontaneously, under no external duress whatsoever.

What has happened in the interim to create a climate on campus where there appears to be so little interest in debating and discussing the issues of great social, political and ethical moment that challenge us today? What student institutions are there, in fact, that could even begin to put on, let alone imagine, such debates?

Today’s Dartmouth students are, in my own most gratifying experience, bright, courteous and motivated to succeed. I take great pleasure in their company in the classroom and out of it. They are as good as they ever have been since the dawn of coeducation, and in some areas, such as in math and the sciences, even better prepared academically. But their “curiosity quotient” is perplexingly and at times dishearteningly low.

The territory of our shared historical, cultural, political and social experience grows smaller and smaller as their own exploration of the wider world seems less and less necessary, less relevant, to them. They are somehow convinced that their ready access to information on the internet is an appropriate substitute for having to organize that same information together with their own personal experience into knowledge and then to integrate their newly acquired knowledge and awareness into ever more vital ways of thinking and acting that will be one of the greatest sources of freedom in their lives.

I offer herein two possible and admittedly very partial explanations for the current absence of that kind of curiosity, which animates us to want to explore and understand better the persons, events and circumstances of today that surround and influence us significantly.

First, we must recognize that in the course of the past several years the soaring costs of an undergraduate education at Dartmouth, and at other elite private institutions, have led the parents of undergraduates to feel financially pinched enough to pressure their sons and daughters to pursue courses of study that are most likely to lead them after graduation to high-paying careers in finance, business and the law.

The staggeringly high percentage of undergraduates across the land who major in economics confirms the pertinence of this observation. It marks a trend that finds practical expression in the relatively recent creation of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Institute.

Second, and much more telling, in my opinion, is the fact that today’s undergraduates, born in the late 1990s, are largely the products of electronic learning; most of them have attended primary and secondary schools where computers were present in the classroom and had already supplanted books as the principal tools for learning.

Little by little, as they moved into the upper grades and into high school, the internet replaced the library. “Googling” as it were, is faster, easier and seemingly just as useful as conducting research by reading a book or a journal — the latter a much more time-consuming and cumbersome activity if it also involves having to go into the stacks of a library.

If in a college course in religion, for instance, one chooses to put aside the recommended bibliography for writing a research paper and turns rather to Wikipedia, as I once observed in a case of plagiarism that came before the Committee on Standards here at Dartmouth, the research is ready-made and requires no further discernment and reflection, simply careful transcription.

Reading requires reflection; it cannot take place without it, and reflection depends in turn on the ability to sift through, discriminate, and to judge different kinds of information. Information processed in this way can become the basis of knowledge as it is added to other bits of relevant information. But information, even masses of it, unless organized into intelligible and coherent patterns, remains no more than that, like so many planks, beams, bricks and shingles heaped next to the foundation of what may become a new house if — and only if — they are properly placed and tightly and rightly connected for the intended edifice.

If the liberal arts education in which Dartmouth has prided itself for generations is to have any true currency today, the members of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, especially those in the humanities, must dare to promote unambiguously the mission of personal self-definition — ethical, social, intellectual — that is perhaps the most important challenge facing our students during their four years at Dartmouth.

Edward M. Bradley, of White River Junction, is professor of classics emeritus at Dartmouth College, where he has taught for more than 50 years. He wrote this essay in 2016 at the request of Joe Asch, a 1979 Dartmouth graduate who died earlier this year, and submitted it for publication here in Asch’s memory.

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