Thursday, May 21, 2015

“Would you want your sister to marry him?”

Concluding an essay about the devolution of fraternities on the American college campus, Emily Esfahani Smith writes: "The problem with Greek life today is not Greek life itself; it is that the masculine ideal the fraternities currently celebrate is depraved." In its beginning the Greek system affirmed values not usually associated with it today:
.... The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at William and Mary. That society, which still awards membership based on academic performance, strove to promote fellowship, intellect, and moral conduct. By the 1820s, Phi Beta Kappa had transformed into a purely academic society as fraternities started to spread across American colleges. These organizations, which were literary and social societies, were founded very much in the same spirit as Phi Beta Kappa. They fashioned themselves with the model of ancient Greece in mind. They were named after Greek letters during a period in American history when “Greece eclipsed Rome as the model for virtuous citizenship in the American imagination and at colleges particularly,” ....

Like the band of friends in Plato’s Symposium, fraternity members came together around two common interests: fellowship and intellectual cultivation. To discipline one’s mind, as Syrett notes, was part of living a virtuous life, which is what the fraternity brothers aspired to do. Meeting minutes from the mid-1800s show brothers at schools like Amherst, Yale, and the University of Michigan gathering to discuss Shakespeare, the benefits and drawbacks of the United States admitting New Mexico into the Union, and “the character of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham.” Manliness was defined in terms of being intelligent, socially graceful, handsome, and morally upright—that is, being a gentleman. In 1836, a fraternity at Williams College determined whether to admit men into their brotherhood by asking: “Would you want your sister to marry him?”

By the 1920s, the ideal of masculinity changed from the more genteel manliness of the antebellum period to one grounded in physical prowess, athleticism, sexual virility, and aggression. Drinking had occurred previously in fraternities, but the fraternity brothers tried to drink “gentlemanly” quantities—that is, in moderation. But by the post-World War I period, excessive drinking—not self-control—became a mark of masculinity. .... [more]