Dartmouth College is older than the United States of America, having been established in 1750 as “Moore’s Indian Charity School.” That’s a part of Dartmouth’s history that would be unknown to most Americans, but the school was established by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, a leading figure in the nation’s first Great Awakening. Wheelock established the school with the purpose of evangelizing American Indians, and he intended for the school eventually known as Dartmouth College to compete with Harvard and Yale in terms of academic distinction. In other words, Dartmouth College is an Ivy League institution originally established for the evangelization of Native Americans.
Keep that in mind as you learn of more recent developments. On September 20, Dartmouth’s student body president, Noah Riner, delivered the customary convocation address–a responsibility that comes with his elected position. Mr. Riner’s speech was relatively short, intensely personal, and intellectually courageous. All that explains why Mr. Riner, a home-schooled native of Louisville, Kentucky, soon found himself at the center of controversy.
The response to Riner’s speech included vitriolic outrage. He was denounced, criticized, and lambasted for the content of his controversial address. The Student Assembly’s vice president for student life resigned the very next day, indicating that she could not serve with Riner because of his “appalling” speech to incoming freshmen.
What in the world did Riner say? “You really are special,” he told the Dartmouth class of 2009. But Mr. Riner didn’t stop there.
“But it isn’t enough to be special,” he continued. “It isn’t enough to be talented, to be beautiful, to be smart. Generations of amazing students have come before you, and have sat in your seats. Some have been good, some have been bad. All have been special.”
Just a few words into his convocation address, Riner signaled that he intended to address the incoming students with something more than emotionalism, congratulations, and simplistic affirmation. He had another issue in mind–character.
His speech took a fascinating turn when Riner recited a list of Dartmouth graduates who had ended up as examples of deficient character. A member of the class of 1939 became a Soviet spy, even as a later graduate committed murder and yet another was arrested for sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old student.
“These stories demonstrate that it takes more than a Dartmouth degree to build character,” Riner asserted. Even at this point, we must recognize that Riner’s convocation address must have broken the norm. After all, he was addressing the bright, privileged, and ambitious new class with the message that a Dartmouth education, while important, was not ultimate.
From that point, Riner expanded his focus to include developments such as looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a crisis of character that affects the entire nation.
“We have the same flaws as the individuals who pillaged New Orleans. Ours haven’t been given such free reign, but they exist and are part of us all the same.”
We can be fairly certain that at least some of those bright young people sitting in the audience would have been surprised, if not offended, to be told that they are sinners. “Let’s be honest,” Riner insisted, “the differences are in degree.”
But if Riner’s assertion that character is primary was not offensive enough, his example of character set many to squirming in their seats.
“Character has a lot to do with sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger,” Riner argued. “The best example of this is Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed, ‘Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me: nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done.’ He knew the right thing to do. He knew the cost would be agonizing torture and death. He did it anyway. That’s character.”
Noah Riner went on. “Jesus is a good example of character, but He’s also much more than that. He is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums, looters, and me.” As he later explained, “Jesus’ message of redemption is simple. People are imperfect, and there are consequences for our actions. He gave His life for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to bear the penalty of the law; so we could see love. The problem is me; the solution is God’s love: Jesus on the cross, for us.”
The response was immediate, vitriolic, and revealing. The cartoonist for the college’s campus newspaper, The Dartmouth, drew a comic strip depicting Riner as a crusading theocrat and Jesus as a marijuana smoker. Kaelin Goulet not only resigned as vice president for student life, but also condemned Riner for his speech. “Your first opportunity to represent Student Assembly to the incoming freshmen was appalling,” she wrote. “You embarrassed the organization; you embarrassed yourself.” In an email message cited by the campus newspaper, Goulet charged, “I consider his choice of topic for the Convocation speech reprehensible and an abuse of power.”
“I have been looking forward to working with you all and thought we were in agreement for what SA stands for,” the former vice president wrote. “Apparently, I was incorrect.” Her spirit of cooperation evidently did not extend to Mr. Riner’s right to speak his mind in his convocation address.
Leaders of Hillel and Shanti, the Jewish and Hindu religious groups on Dartmouth’s campus, wrote a letter to the campus newspaper that described Noah Riner’s convocation address as a “disrespectful action” which represents “the complete antithesis of the value that Dartmouth espouses.”
The editors of The Dartmouth acknowledged the college’s roots, reminding readers that Dartmouth had been founded “to bring Christianity to Native Americans.” Nevertheless, the paper celebrated the fact that “Dartmouth has more recently eschewed this goal in favor of providing a balanced, secular and inclusive education to its students.”
According to the editors, “The problem with Riner’s address was his insinuation that turning to Jesus is the only way to find character. Indeed, Jesus was the only positive example of character Riner offered. While many of the ideas Jesus exemplified and his followers espoused stretch across faiths, statements such as, ‘Jesus is a good example of character, but He’s also much more than that. He is the solution to flawed people like corrupt Dartmouth alums, looters, and me’ and, ‘The problem is me; the solution is God’s love: Jesus on the cross, for us,’ are explicitly Christian and, as such, managed to alienate many in the audience regardless of their faiths.”
Note clearly–the very fact that Dartmouth’s student body president would espouse convictions consistent with the college’s founding vision was considered an act virtually tantamount to treason against Dartmouth’s current “secular and inclusive” vision.
Brian Martin, guest columnist for the campus newspaper, described Riner’s convocation address as “fire-and-brimstone remarks” that demonstrated “casual disrespect for the diversity of the captive audience.”
“We are a community that welcomes and respects all its members, no matter what your creed,” Martin insisted. Evidently, this means welcome and respect to all members and all creeds–except for the founding creed of the institution.
Martin pushed his point one step further, arguing that “Jesus would not have wanted to make new students feel unwelcome, to make faculty feel uncomfortable or to make alumni question whether this was the same Dartmouth that they had attended.” Are we to assume that Jesus Christ would have felt himself constrained by Ivy League etiquette? So much for cleansing the Temple.
Mr. Riner was not without his defenders. “Had Noah Riner opened his convocation speech with ‘I’m gay,’ this wouldn’t be happening. That’s not Noah, but if it were, no one would have resigned. No one would be organizing protests. Such a reaction, according to our rigid social standards, would be bigotry. If there were any Op-Eds or outcries, they would be praising his ability to encourage individualism and progressivism in Dartmouth.” Those are the words of Stacey Kourlis, who defended Riner in a column published in The Dartmouth. “We chose a leader who is willing to stand up and articulate his or her beliefs,” Kourlis argued. “We didn’t default to someone who’s doing this for a resume. That’s a testament to how special we [are] as a community. So let’s take it one step further and allow Riner to say precisely what he thinks, without fear of political correctness.”
The charter that established what we now know as Dartmouth College was granted by King George III of England, who stated that the purpose of the institution should be “for civilizing and Christianizing the children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youths and any others.” Noah Riner’s crime was to fulfill that mission by speaking honestly, courageously, and sincerely about his Christian faith. It was a bold and powerful demonstration of Christian witness, and it was one young man’s demonstration of the very strength of character that authentic education is to stimulate and strengthen, not subvert and marginalize.
The controversy over Noah Riner’s convocation address at Dartmouth is a bracing reminder of the fact that America’s most prestigious academic institutions have become openly hostile to the very convictions upon which they were established. In the name of diversity, voices such as Noah Riner’s are decried and condemned. Just sixty years ago, Ernest M. Hopkins, then president of Dartmouth, said, “Dartmouth is a Christian college founded for the Christianization of its students.” One wonders whether Reverend Wheelock and President Hopkins would be welcomed today on the campus of the college they respectively founded and led.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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