As Nicholas Syrett observes in his excellent history of white men’s college fraternities, The Company He Keeps, these early fraternities were in every way a measure of their time
That all of this fun is somehow as essential as the education itself-is somehow part of a benevolent and ultimately edifying process of “growing up”-is one of the main reasons so many parents who are themselves in rocky financial shape will make economically ruinous decisions to support a four-year-residential-college experience for their children. There are many thousands of American undergraduates whose economic futures (and those of their parents) would be far brighter if they knocked off some of their general-education requirements online, or at the local community college-for pennies on the dollar-before entering the Weimar Republic of traditional-college pricing. But college education, like weddings and funerals, tends to prompt irrational financial decision making, and so here we are. Add another pesto flavor to the pasta bar, Dean Roland! We just lost another kid to online ed!
That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty-along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. But sexual frustration and homiletics would not last forever as the hallerican college life.
Hardly conditions that would augur the current trillion-dollar student-loan balloon that hovers over us like a pre-ignition Hindenburg
«I was taken aback by the fact that these women would openly acknowledge what I thought we were too old to admit in college: These men were popular. And that made them powerful. And if we rocked the boat, we could be shunned.»
In 1825, at Union College , in upstate New York (hardly a garden of earthly delights in the best of circumstances, but surely a gulag experience for those stuck at Union; imagine studying Thessalonians in the ass-cracking cold of a Schenectady e up with a creative act of rebellion against the fun-busters who had them down: the formation of a secret club, which they grandly named the Kappa Alpha Society. Word of the group spread, and a new kind of college institution was founded, and with it a brand-new notion: that going to college could include some pleasure. It was the American age of societies, and this new type fit right in. They combined the secret handshakes and passwords of small boys’ clubs; the symbols and rituals of Freemasonry; the new national interest in Greek, as opposed to Roman, culture as a model for an emerging citizenry; and the popularity of literary societies, elements of which–oratory, recitation, and the presentation of essays-the early fraternities included. Fraternities also gave young college men a way of behaving and of thinking about themselves that quickly took on surprisingly modern dimensions.*
From the very beginning, fraternities were loathed by the grown-ups running colleges, who tried to banish them. But independence from overbearing faculties-existing on a plane beyond the reach of discipline-was, in large measure, the point of fraternity membership; far from fearing the opprobrium of their knock-kneed overlords, the young men relished and even courted it. When colleges tried to shut them down, fraternities asserted that any threat to men’s membership in the clubs constituted an infringement of their right to freedom of association. It was, at best, a legally delicate argument, but it was a symbolically potent one, and it has withstood through the years. The powerful and well-funded political-action committee that represents fraternities in Washington has fought successfully to ensure that freedom-of-association language is included in all higher-education reauthorization legislation, thus “disallowing public Universities the ability to ban fraternities.”