Apathy & Success at Dartmouth

What is the Dartmouth ideal of success, I asked you. Effortless excellence. Of course, excellence is seldom effortless. Then, maybe, it is only the appearance of effortlessness. We never deny that the game that matters so very much to us is about anything but winning and, yet, winning now precludes the appearance of the very material investment that makes success possible.

I chronically understate the work I put into anything in which I succeed. So do you. When asked what classes you’re taking five weeks into the term, you pretend you can’t remember one of them. My friend says you’ve yet to miss a single class. There’s more to it, and you, than that, obviously. We’re really quite good at caring a lot while pretending not to. Or maybe just knowing when to care and when to pretend not to. We’re all at least somewhat interesting people; self-definition, both as an internal and external gesture, requires a set of passions upon which it can found itself. Maybe, then, this façade of indifference is but an illusion, a justification for the inclination towards apathy. And yet, in every conversation about the Dartmouth ideal of success I have, both you and I immediately start talking about the appearance of effortlessness, and just as immediately emphasizing the simulated nature of that appearance. It’s, like, about showing you don’t care even though everyone else knows you do after your first year, you say. Is an appearance still an appearance when it attains near universal recognition as such?

In many ways, it is the most elemental of defense mechanisms; how can I fail something in which I have apparently invested so little? And so, we deny the very principle of competition the Dartmouth ideal of success resides upon. Any ideal of success requires a failure against which it can define itself and, so, we point to those who couldn’t keep up and think, maybe they just aren’t smart enough. Maybe they just never realized the façade of indifference was only that: a façade.

Of course, the Dartmouth ideal of success is about far more than simulated indifference towards your own numerous expressions of excellence. There exist particular manifestations of success that take precedence over others; while social excellence is obviously central, for most of the community a certain level of academic achievement becomes imperative to sustain the possibility of that social distinction upon graduation. These overall aims then manifest themselves in sub-categories: an individual’s affiliation as reflection of social status, job offers and/or internships as measurement of academic success. For a substantial portion of the Dartmouth student body—perhaps the majority—, these measures of success correspond at least somewhat directly to their passions. To a certain extent, it is an inevitable process in the formulation of the contemporary subject; Dartmouth attracts students willing and eager to invest in a particular model of success with its promise to produce the very individuals who embody that model of success. You tell me why you chose to come here. I was really into the “work hard, play hard” reputation that Dartmouth has. You also mention how Dartmouth alumni on average have higher incomes ten years after graduation than the alumni of any other American university. While you mention it in an offhand, manner—no more than an afterthought, you’d like me to believe—, as if you are at least a little embarrassed to admit the importance of future earnings in a decision about college, the specificity with which you recite this so often mentioned statistic is revealing. Maybe you’re even right; perhaps, the corporatization of academia renders the investment in a degree from a particular institution identical to any other type of investment where any factors outside of profit operate only at the margins. This is how Dartmouth both implicitly and explicitly advertises itself in the ever competitive market of higher education. You actually came here because of Dartmouth’s reputation for working and playing hard. You’re also certainly not the only one. This relationship is as unsurprising as it is self-perpetuating; a student body must invest heavily in any particular ideal of success for it to realize the level of prominence the Dartmouth “ethic” holds on campus.

And, then, what about those of you—or do I maybe mean us?—not so inclined to invest in this particular ethic? Maybe you embrace total apathy, or at least the appearance of such; the (il)logical endpoint of any system that demands the façade of indifference is simulated indifference towards the system itself. This indifference towards these appearances then subtly but surely pervades all else: its in the softly-spoken it’s god’s will as you opt out, in those pack-a-day cigarette habits that really do show you don’t care what they think about us, and in the intentional spiraling motion towards self-destruction that constitutes our drinking patterns. When faced with a system predicated upon the appearance of indifference, those seeking differentiation have to appear that much more indifferent in order to characterize their existence as outside of any such games. In this way, the game’s parameters march outward; the revolutionary purporting the system’s destruction is but the game’s advance guard. Here, Andrew Lohse is particularly illuminative. Does there exist a better example of getting your cake and eating it too within the value-system that is Dartmouth?

And now, you ask for a solution. Dartmouth students are particularly good at coming up with problems, but much worse at nailing down solutions, you say. In response, I promise I will at least gesture towards something resembling a solution. And yet, I wonder, is there anything wrong with a system that seems to reward those who invest heavily in it? Is a “WASP-themed amusement park” that operates on the exchange of social capital—as you once so perfectly described Dartmouth—such a terrible place so long as we, the consumers of higher education, are aware of this reputation? Regardless of the answer, which certainly seems obvious, what solution can I offer? My inclination towards a remark upon the contingency of any value-system no matter how seemingly entrenched it appears seems woefully inadequate. No attempted illumination of the anything but inevitable processes by which this ideal of success achieved its dominance will address the so frighteningly problematic aspects of Dartmouth’s culture. With the profound institutionalization of tradition for the sake of tradition that defines Dartmouth, the possibilities for change seem so desperately remote.

Yet, here you are.