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Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (1879)/College fraternities: have they a right to live?

< Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (1879)

Although the writer of this chapter has assumed a priori that the answer to this question is an affirmative one, in that he collected their past records and classified them, yet he deems the subject of sufficient importance to inquire, not into the causes of the fraternities’ existence, but into the right to their continuance. Since the beginning of the movement, in 1825, much opposition has been manifested to these organizations, and it is our purpose to review as briefly as may be the arguments brought against them, and, at the same time, show what claims they put forth to public recognition and support.

The first, and most prominent point advanced against the societies is their secrecy. Let us see in what this secrecy consists. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, the members wear conspicuous badges and sometimes showy colors; they publish catalogues and issue journals; they associate together in the class-room, the lecture-room, the chapel, and the dormitory; they build halls which indicate their unity and association, and their meeting places are known to all. They are certainly not secret in the sense that “secret orders” are generally denounced, in that their adherents are unknown and cannot be recognized by the uninitiated. If they are not secret as to membership, modes of thought, methods of living, studies, and amusements, in what does this bugbear of secrecy consist? In that they do not admit non-members to their meetings, and, in order to exclude such, they have invented a series of signs and words of recognition. Do they not in this exercise the right, every fair-minded person will grant, that individuals may demand and seek privacy if they so desire? Do not the anti-secret fraternities and the literary societies, of which the fraternities are denounced as invidious rivals, hold their meetings with closed doors, and do the college authorities object? The secrecy is limited then to what is done at these meetings, and let us see what that amounts to. Here is the proposition. Given a number of college students, whose tastes, habits, antecedents, and prospects are known, to determine what would be. their actions when. assembled together for their own purposes. The dullest college officer, the oldest trustee, could solve it immediately. We thus see this great bar of secrecy removed, and vanishing when approached like the ghost in Hamlet.

The opponents of the fraternities charge that they tend to demoralize and degrade their members. In order to accomplish this infamous purpose it is certain that there must be placed before the associations some object to be attained, and this low condition reached as an indirect result, for no society would avow such a purpose and expect to obtain a single recruit. Let us see what the objects and ends of the fraternities are proclaimed to be. A careful comparison of the constitutions of the widest and best known societies shows that in no case is this object of a lower grade than “the promotion of social intercourse and fraternal association.” We cannot better state this point than by quoting from the preamble of one of the most influential of the Greek-Letter orders:

“Whereas, we believe that the development of the intellect, the promotion of literary culture, the cultivation of confidence and fraternal feeling, the nourishment of social enjoyment, and the advancement of the cause of education can best be obtained and conserved by means of an organization among the students of educational institutions. We, therefore, pledge ourselves to endeavor to accomplish these ends by subscribing to the following outline of government.”

Would not the opponents of the societies themselves cheerfully subscribe to such a doctrine? If they would not, they certainly do not come to the discussion in a fair spirit. If the college authorities dread the actions of the fraternities, as they seem to do, let them demand, when a fraternity seeks to extend its organization to their institution, that the promoters of the enterprise shall lay before them the object of the order as stated in their own constitution. If exception is then taken to the aim of the chosen fraternity, and reasons given for a refusal to permit its establishment, few students, and no reasonable ones, will persist in the attempt. But, if it is assumed that the societies are “hotbeds of vice” without investigation, and a lodge is peremptorily ordered to disband without reason being given or excuse listened to, and students are treated like children as regards their own peculiar rights, then the spirit which always opposes unjust oppression may break forth, and a convivial club be established and maintained through the very efforts made to break it up.

But for this charge there must be some foundation in fact, or even the opponents of the fraternities would not make such a defamatory assertion. We admit the fact that, at a few institutions, individual chapters within our own experience have departed from the practice of the principles enjoined upon them, and entered upon a career of open debauchery or secret vice. Can this result, however, be charged to the fraternities? The bad will creep in everywhere, and seek to use good associations for evil purposes. Are missionary societies to be condemned hecause occasionally the treasurers leave the country with all the available assets? Let us show college authorities the remedy. If a chapter or part of one shows a tendency to evil courses, call its members before you and show them the inevitable result of their conduct. The members must be unfit to rank either as students or gentlemen if there is not an immediate change. The fraternity men have a pride in: their societies, and we know a quiet word to influential members will do more to restrain and reclaim an erring student than any amount of personal admonition could have done. If the arguments and persuasions of friends have no effect, rare indeed must be the case where, if a chapter does expel a brother, it does not immediately sober him, and maybe drive him from the college to begin a new career elsewhere with better resolutions. We say to the college faculties, use the fraternities instead of abusing them. The proclaimed objects of the societies cannot degrade, and we have shown that a tendency to depart to vicious practices may be checked by an appeal to the societies themselves. If all fails, expel the students, break up the chapter, and explain the circumstances to the fraternity authorities. We are much mistaken if they do not thank you warmly for your very rigor. Pursue the usual course, and you raise a storm of indignation, from the smart of an unjust action, which sooner or later will burst upon the college to its decline and decay. At Princeton, where the mention of a Greek-Letter society would cause the president to start in suspicious horror, troubles are continually arising from the suppression of the students’ rights. Admit a few of the best fraternities, the causes of trouble will disappear and the societies themselves will exercise a discipline more severe than Scottish divine ever dreamed of, and far more efficient. We never hear of midnight pistol practice at Union, Dartmouth, Rochester, Yale, 0r other colleges where the fraternities supplement the college government, and are wisely and judiciously encouraged. The facts speak for themselves. The charge against which we have defended the fraternities, however, will be seen to be groundless, when the lists of renowned divines, bishops, lawyers, and statesmen are examined who are members of the fraternities, and who would never countenance any evil practices.

It is further claimed that the fraternities are outside and foreign institutions, which tend to destroy the literary societies and introduce the politician’s arts into the management of the other students’ associations. That they are outside and foreign, we do not deny; and why is it so, let us ask? Because the founders of our colleges in their wisdom have provided for extensive courses of study, for supplemental studies presenteel by means of the literary societies, for scientific and other associations; but they have one and all neglected to recognize the fact that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;” that there is and should be a social side to every student’s nature; that college life should consist of something more than a study of dead Greek roots, mathematical puzzles, or investigations into the structure of obscure polyps and long-named fossils. Study becomes wearisome if pursued unremittingly, and sooner or later reactions must set in, and if proper outlets are not provided for unexpected outbursts of feeling or action, hazing and all other disreputable forms of college enterprise are sure to flourish. No better outlet could be provided than the fraternity chapter, where in friendly meeting the senior, junior, “soph,” or “fresh” forget class rivalries. Where college topics are discussed, college laws unfolded, and college politics debated over; where controversies on living issues take place, and the peculiar bent of each individual mind is allowed to follow its own path, because with chosen associates and friends. Has not a good man said, “Behold how good: and pleasant a thing it is for brothers to dwell together in unity”? The fraternities have become the exponents of the doctrine proclaimed in the Psalmist’s sentence. The fraternities are outside and foreign in no sense but in that they are not under the control of the college authorities. How many are the homesick students weary with study whom brothers encourage with kindly words to persevere! How many are the victims of professors’ partiality who here find support among their friends! How many are the weak students insufficiently prepared who have been assisted by helping hands and nothing said about it! How many are the benefactors of colleges whose interest in their alma-mater has bcen preserved by the friendships formed and the precepts taught in chapter-meetings!

Perhaps they do break up the literary societies. If the literary societies are but feebly animated bodies, whose proceedings are without interest and whose deliberations are too much akin to those of the class-room to afford relief and rest, and the fraternities do afford the necessary elements, we say let them break up the literary societies, and the true friends of education will rejoice. That the fraternities introduce politics into college affairs, we distinctly deny. Discriminating as they are, the chapters usually contain all those who are worthy candidates for office, and friends naturally support their friends’ pretensions, and in this have distinct issues been made and fought for between chapters. But these things are not due to the fraternities’ existence, but side issues of the literary or other societies’ methods. If the politician’s arts are introduced, we assert that they would be so introduced if the fraternities never existed, and point for proof to colleges where they do not exist, and where we sometimes hear of debates being broken up by pitching the constitution out of the window and causing the chairman to follow. Surely the fraternities are not responsible for such actions, and if they do occur quiet appeal to the chapter’s reputation will Soon cause their immediate disappearance. One of our oldest and most experienced college presidents has said that he could govern the students better by means of the societies than without them, and we know its truth. The chapter furnishes a home for the student on his introduction to college life. It gives him friends who will guide him around all the pitfalls into which he might otherwise plunge, and that will show college customs and practices. He will feel that he is not alone, and in return will labor to make his chapter realize in some measure his ideal of what a chapter should be.

It is further advanced that membership in these fraternities entails useless expense, and almost necessitates a waste of money. Let us say this. If, while in college, students are provided with more money than thcy need they will waste it in individual cases, whether they belong to fraternities or not. Is it not better for the wealthy student to spend his superfluous income in a handsome badge, in beautifying his chapter home, in helping needy friends, or in assisting the chapter library, than to spend it in fast horses, drinking, or worse? He has at least something more tangible for his money than a weak stomach and a sick headache, which he would be apt to acquire in disposing of his money through the usual channels. The fraternities certainly offer greater advantages for the disposal of extra cash than wine shops or kindred institutions. If the money is to be spent, then this seems to us to be a good way. It may be said that false pride will cause a student to use funds in emulation of richer college mates which could he put to better advantage. We say that such pride would cause the same results were the fraternities not at hand to act as disbursing agencies. Then again we have seen poor students helped in many ways by fraternity mates, and we are sure that their aid would never have been offered or received if the bond of a common brotherhood had not drawn giver and receiver together. The fraternities are not selfish; they are not aristocratic clubs; no man was ever refused admission on account of his poverty; and it fosters kindly feeling and earnest appreciation between poor students and their richer classmates when they belong to a common lodge, where without it they would inevitably separate into cliques divided by money lines. The expenses incurred by a fraternity man are comparatively light, and much depends upon the size and location of the chapter. In city colleges the expenses will average perhaps twenty dollars a year for each member when the chapter numbers fifteen, and proportionally less when the number is larger. In country colleges, where living is cheaper, the total expenses will not amount to more than one-half that sum. The practice of living in clubs, which the fraternity system encourages, not only causes the students to save money, but really reduces the lodge-room rent to zero, and the running expenses of a chapter come to as near nothing as well could be. It doesn’t look as though the fraternities cause a waste of money in view of the above facts.

Lastly, it is claimed that the oaths which the initiates are required to take for admission into the societies are profane and immoral, and blind the conscience to a just perception of right and wrong. Not having seen the pledges of all the fraternities, we can only speak for the most extended and widely known of the societies. The strictness of the promise given is of all degrees. The pledge consists generally of a declaration that the candidate will not reveal the actions or intentions of the order, that he will conduct himself with kindness and courtesy to all, that he will aid his fellow-members in whatsoever ways he conscientiously can, and that he will obey the constitution. In some cases this pledge takes the form of an oath before witnesses, and in others it is simply a promise made on the honor of the candidate. There seems to us to be nothing profane and immoral in this. Every association for any purpose whatever must have some guarantee from its members. Now contrast this type of pledge with that used by the anti-secret society and we see that their bond is one of hate, which tends to separate classmate from classmate and destroy all harmony in the students’ organizations. Which would the conscientious choose?

We emphatically deny that in joining a fraternity an iota of freedom of conscience is lost. It is true that the sight of chapters voting solidly for their own candidates has given rise to this calumny; but this arises in any association, secret or not, and is simply due to the fact that discussions take place in regard to disputed questions,and results are arrived at and acquiesced in, while sympathy and friendship will naturally cause associated bodies of students to think in nearly the same grooves. We have seen fraternity men, however, going directly against their chapters, and never knew them to be thought the less of for it. we have also seen the “neutrals” in a class giving their votes without thought or reflection to the first clique that asks them and uses a little flattery in the process. If there are to be parties and sides, which have the better motives for taking partisan grounds? Of the anti-secret societies it is sufficient to state that they always vote solidly, right or wrong.

Have the fraternities a right to live? We answer “Yes.” The dreadful secrecy we have shown to be but a convenient peg upon which to hang imaginative abuse; we have shown that instead of demoralizing and degrading their members, the Greek-Letter fraternities put before them high purposes and noble examples; that instead of being foreign bodies, hostile to the college spirit and culture, they are friendly allies, and only foes to dry-as-dust policies seeking to reanimate literary societies which 11aveoutlived their usefulness. Instead of fraternities causing a waste of money, they cultivate a spirit of economy, and their existence actually tends to lessen the sum total of college expenses. Their oaths, far from being immoral and profane, are necessary safeguards, and their discussions promote the formation of deliberate opinions instead of blind allegiance. We claim for the fraternities that they fill a necessary and important place in college life, and supply a lacking element in the student’s course, and that they are a help to their members, and a valuable and efficient aid to good college government.