"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fraternities And Sororities– A College Sideshow

There was no fraternity system at Yale in the Sixties, no Greek rows, hazing, pledges, or drunken parties.  Just Yale and the residential colleges – Trumbull, Davenport, Stiles, Silliman, and all the rest.  Very British, old and dignified, and jackets and ties to meals. There was no special bonding that went on at the residential colleges.  They were places to live and a convenient way to break the student body into smaller clusters.  There were rumors that the administration placed students by type – jocks in one place, geeks in another, old-line WASPS in a third.  There was even a rumor that gays were housed in Timothy Dwight, and the era being what it was, we confirmed the rumor by noticing – or thinking we noticed – swish, lisp, and fashion. There were as few overtly gay Yalies as there were Jews or Italians in those days, so picking out a St. Grottlesex, grunt, or gay student was more than anything a parlor game. We were all simply Yale men, and we left it at that.

There was only one place that called itself a fraternity – Deke House, Delta Kappa Epsilon, jock heaven, a sweaty redoubt of muscle and testosterone.  Even Yale did some low-level recruiting, and a few ringers were let in to solidify the Bulldog line.  While the rest of us were dating at Smith, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Vassar, the hairy apes at Deke were stirring drinks with their dicks to impress the the Townie girls they picked up on the New Haven Green. These girls must have been really desperate to land a Yalie, and God knows what image they had in mind, but as soon as they stepped through the doors of Deke any lingering ideas about well-tailored, moneyed, sophisticated New England gentlemen were erased.  In fact the yelling, grunting, and food fights must have looked very familiar.  Anyone who had squired the likes of Maria Scazzanucci back to her third-floor walk up in Wooster Square would have entered on old-world goomba father-knows- best circus of yelling wives, crying babies, and old crones.

There were two men’s clubs – Fence Club, the home to the seriously Old Yale descendants, nothing funny mixed in the blue blood, no Jewish ambition, no social climbing, no arrivistes, and no pretenders.  Everyone in Fence Club belonged there because of family, breeding, and money.  I am not sure what went on within those aristocratic halls, but assumed it was all about polo, dating Muffy at the Vineyard, and Spring Break at St. Bart’s.

St. Anthony’s was the other respectable group house for the more-or-less elite.  It did not have the cachet of Fence and was as far removed from Deke as Little Italy was from the North Shore.  For most of us non-jock plebeians, our residential colleges were the only sub-strata of Yale life that mattered; and as I said, they were way-stations, fuel stops, and rest houses, nada mas.

The fraternity thing heated up significantly in Senior Year, however, for during Spring Term of Junior Year, the underground societies sent out their clandestine crew to ‘tap’ potential members.  There were many such societies, and they all had their own brand.  There were artsy societies, and literary ones.  There were societies that put on one-act plays, read poetry, bird-watched, and raised newts and salamanders. They were definitely non-party, non-mainstream social, and uppity.  They were formed to provide solace and a home to those students who were ignored by the above-ground and famous Secret Societies like Skull and Bones.  Members of these Secret Societies maintained a strict code of omertà – absolute silence about what went inside the crypt. Skull and Bones has been housed in the same austere temple for decades. It was intimidating.

All we knew that went on there were pseudo-psychological games, designed to break down inhibition and reticence so that men could see and relate to their brothers without pretense and supposition. 

I refused the tap which came late one night from a mole-like recruiter for what he described as the intellectual underground society at Yale. I wanted no part of groupie wannabees no matter how smart.  They were Morlocks forced underground by the WASP elite, second-raters who needed social accreditation.  I could not experience the inner workings of secret societies, but I indirectly learned about the psycho-babble from a prep school acquaintance who had decided to form his own.  He had prepared a list of positive and negative attributes that he felt most characterized him.  The drill was to be as honest as possible in one’s self-assessment, and take to heart what others said.  He went down his list.  I vetoed most of his ‘positive’ markers (where he came up with ‘generous’, ‘respectful’, and ‘a good listener’ I’ll never know) and affirmed all his negatives.  By the end of the trial run, he was pissed.  His carefully constructed but faux self-image had to be rethought. 

Yale, and perhaps the rest of the Ivy League, is unique in its indifference to fraternities and sororities – or at least it was when I was a student.  There was a certain snobbery regarding the ‘Greeks’.  They were for Southern airheads who liked to party.

They were of no social standing or consequence.  They were a waste of time, and the rituals required of pledges and brothers/sisters were ignorant and primitive. 

Looked at more generously, sororities and fraternities broke up the inconceivable size of public universities into more manageable units.  If you had to be one of the 60,000 students at Midwest State with no smaller grounding, life would be impossible– thousands of small, unrelated, insignificant beings scrambling for purchase in an impersonal world. Once the idea of fraternities and sororities took hold, it was a logical next step to disambiguate by type; and the student bodies were big enough to have every permutation possible.  If the few dozen underground societies at Yale had diversity, imagine the bounty of a cornfield giant.

The one thing you can’t do at a public university is discriminate on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. as the University of Alabama recently found out.  If you are a sorority at a private university, a country club (Augusta National has been a long male white preserve until public social pressure and outcry forced it to change – not the Attorney General), or men’s association, you can admit or refuse anyone you like; but if you take federal money, you must watch your P’s and Q’s.

Anything else is fair game, and 60,000 herd-instinct, socially-motivated students will quickly join a Greek, have a place to live, and have the company of like-minded students.

Whenever I hear of sororities and fraternities, I thank Yale for one more thing – letting me thrive as an individual, free to choose my friends, my allegiances, and my associations.  I never minded mega-lectures or the free-form society of 4000 students.  That’s what college was supposed to be – freedom from all the restraints of high school (and especially that gulag of secondary education, the New England boarding school) and parents.  A chance to be an individual after having been defined by others for so long.

In most large public universities students are expected to join a Greek. I presume there are houses for the derelict and unwanted; but by and large social associations are de rigeur on big and small campuses alike.  Small private colleges are not immune to this social fever, and places like Amherst were known to be even more highly organized than the best of the Midwest biggies.  You were defined by your fraternity, and owed it allegiance and donations long after graduation.

I am actually all for online higher education.  Who needs any social infrastructure at all?  Any individual worth his salt can be as enterprising in choice of social associations as professional ones, and this social life of choice can complement the intense, individually-tailored virtual academia.

Then again, I never was a good office bee either.  I high-tailed it for home or the local bar at 5 sharp, engineered a unique work-at-home program, attended most meetings as a virtual participant, and turned down offers for office Happy Hours, birthday parties, and going-away celebrations.

I am still as sniffy as ever at the mention of sororities and fraternities just as I am at the thought of Big Ten football games. College is for study – a unique ivory tower in which, if you have chosen correctly, will house similarly intellectually motivated and ambitious students.

I spent more time on the road between New Haven and Northampton than I care to remember.  I and my friends begged for and borrowed cars, hitchhiked, and tagged along just to get up to Smith – or Vassar, Wellesley, or Mt. Holyoke. There we cruised for dates.  It was the veldt where we hunted our prey.  Individuals (horny individuals) on the prowl.  Every man for himself, no bonding of brothers descending on a sister sorority.  The thrill of the hunt.

I pay very little attention to the flap in the news about Alabama.  We all have inbuilt machinery to bond like to like; but we have to abide by both social and official rules and proscriptions. 

As Woody Allen famously said, “"I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member”.  I go one step further – I don’t want to belong to any club whatsoever.

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