TT: Fraternities and Sororities

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just go back one entry to play with the Quail Family on holiday.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we continue our exploration of some of the mysteries of American university life.


ALAN: What are the fraternities and sororities that seem to be so much a part of American university life? I don’t think we have any equivalent of those…

JANE: I never got involved with fraternities or sororities, so I can only give the most general answer.   I believe they started out as organizations to recognize and promote academic achievement.

Later, the “social” fraternity or sorority evolved.  These were, at least as I see them, networking organizations, intended to help students make contacts that would be useful in later life.  Often the members did community volunteer work or fund-raising for charities as well.   In some cases, however, the organizations simply devolved into places to go for a party.

Again, this is a topic where our readers will probably be able to tell you more than I can.

ALAN: In descriptions I’ve read and films that touch on it, it seems that fraternities and sororities are organised in a “secret society” way,  rather like the freemasons – though I don’t recall any mention of secret handshakes and the rolling up of one trouser leg. I have read about arcane fraternal initiation rituals, and hazing (a word we don’t have, though I know what it means) that sometimes gets quite out of hand. If that kind of thing was done to random strangers in the street, the perpetrators would end up in court. How do they get away with it under the fraternal umbrella?

JANE: I’m not certain that hazing is much tolerated any more.  Certainly, there have been a good many protests about the abuse aspect.

I think the idea behind the hazing was to create a bond, something in the way of “We’ve all been through the same ordeal.”  However, frankly, it gives me the creeps.

ALAN: Me too! I hate bullying in all its many manifestations.

The fraternities and sororities all seem to have names made up from seemingly random combinations of Greek letters. Why? And will any Greek letters do, or do certain combinations have mystical significance?

JANE: I have no idea!  Maybe someone who has been through the system can help out.  Let me ask…

Okay.  I’ve done some asking.  I think you’ll be interested to learn that most people seem to have no idea.  I’m on a list with a lot of very knowledgeable people – many of them writers or editors who glory in obscure knowledge.  I asked if any of them knew the answer to your question based on personal experience – not a wiki search or anything like that.  The only response I got was a flippant one from editor Gardner Dozois.  He said, “It’s Greek to me.”

ALAN: I find it fascinating that nobody seems to have asked themselves that seemingly very obvious question. Maybe it’s not as obvious as I thought it was. Or perhaps it just indicates an acceptance of the status quo simply because it is the status quo…

JANE: I think you’re right about that.  Now, I didn’t stop with the one list.  Next I went to Debbie Davis, whose sorority, Beta Sigma Phi, invited me to be a speaker a few months ago.

Debbie said: “According to my handbook for training, our Greek letter name grew out of the motto chosen; first letters of Greek words for Life, Learning & Friendship. A “secret” meaning. On the web page for Beta Sigma Phi is the following: “BIOS – signifies the importance we place in the art of living, SOPHIA – expresses quality of  learning, PHILOS – expresses idea of friendship, or Life, Learning and Friendship.”

ALAN: So obviously only classical scholars can start a fraternity…

JANE: Heh… Next, I asked my friend, Paul, who was so helpful on the topic of letter sweaters.  He said:

“From what I can make out, it’s one of those deals where it’s simply ‘always’ been that way. It seems to have started with the formation of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, back in 1776 at the College of William & Mary. That was not really a fraternity or sorority but more an organization to recognize academic achievement, but, when fraternities and sororities came along, they just
adopted the Greek letter designation, too.

“I can’t speak from a lot of fraternity experience. I had friends in college who were members of the three fraternities we had on campus, but I remained what they called a Gamma Delta Iota (a God Damned Independent). I just never joined any.”

ALAN: I love it! On a slightly related note (and Latin rather than Greek), I had some friends who organised themselves into a drinking club. They coined a motto for the club: Bibo Ergo Sum (I drink therefore I am). I think that exhibits the same kind of irreverent humour as Gamma Delta Iota…

Movies such as “Animal House” suggest that fraternities are full of shallow self-absorbed party animals with few, if any, redeeming traits. Obviously “Animal House” exaggerates greatly for the sake of comic effect, but is there some grain of truth in that assumption?

JANE: I can’t say from personal experience.  Lynchburg College, where I taught for five years, did have its share of fraternities and sororities.  I know the members did charity events.  For several years I taught “Business Writing” (how to do resumes, cover letters, proposals, stuff like that).  I had a lot of nice, clean-cut, frat boys as students.  Every year, we’d go through the same routine.

Student – “Dr. Lindskold, will you please come and donate blood?  Our frat is running a blood drive.”

Dr. Lindskold – “Absolutely.  I’m O Negative and that means I’m a universal donor.  However, we’re going to make a deal.  If I show up, you don’t cut class on the grounds you were too busy with your blood drive.  Deal?”

Student – “You bet!”

And, you know,  Alan.  They always kept the deal, so I think there was more to them than wild party animals.

ALAN: That certainly gives a much more sensible and acceptable impression of frats (and sors? – what’s the accepted plural abbreviation of sororities?) than my original rather muddled ideas had suggested to me.

JANE: Now it’s your turn.  As we’ve been discussing the oddities American education – or at least the rituals and terms associated with it – I realized I have a few questions for you.

ALAN: Well, I’ve been though the English system all the way from primary school to university and I have the scars to prove it. Ask away!


6 Responses to “TT: Fraternities and Sororities”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    I’d say it depends on the fraternity or sorority. At my undergrad school, the frat houses rented out cheap rooms for the summer, so I lived in a frat that summer. That place was known as an “animal house.” Their initiation ritual consisted of having the pledge drink three or four six-packs of beer, and “if they were still cool after that, they were in.” The summer house manager told me that his doctor had told him to stop drinking, because he had a swollen liver. He was 20. The house president told me about his various experiences with drugs, which was great, because now I don’t have to try them to understand what they’re like. I wore sandals in the shower, due to the broken beer bottles and other things that sometimes turned up there. So yes, there are certain frats that are as bad as reputation makes them out to be. I’m also quite sure that this is not true for most fraternities. It IS true for some of them, unfortunately, but students find out which ones are animal houses before they join.

    To be fair, I should point out that certain marching bands aren’t much better. In another school where I was a teaching assistant, being in the marching band took students’ grades down one, so that a B student would get a C, and so forth. The problem was that, when they followed the football teams to games at other schools, they were expected to party all weekend, not to study, and the time they lost being part of that “fraternity” cost them dearly in their classes.

    On the flip side, one university’s sororities had trouble keeping women in them (according to the student paper, at least), because they had a house matron, expected the girls to be home by 9, expected them to buy and wear a lot of sorority merchandise, spend as much time primping as studying, and not to have boyfriends sleep over… Basically, they expected the women to follow the rules of the early 1960s. Since the women would have had more fun and freedom in the dorms, let alone living in a shared apartment or house, they left in droves, and one of them wrote up a long article in the newspaper detailing her experience. She was appalled that she, the daughter of hippies, was expected to submit to such outdated social rules.

    • janelindskold Says:

      And perhaps relies on the time period as well?

      From prior posts, I have the impression we are roughly contemporaries in age. It would be nice to know if the modern version of these organizations are less given to excess or if, as with you, things that administrators would never see still go on behind the scenes.

    • heteromeles Says:

      My “Animal house” experience came in the late 1980s, and my experience as a TA came around the new millennium, if that helps. My impression is that it all depends, when it comes to fraternities and similar groups like marching bands. The ’80s animal house didn’t have any grownups in charge, which was part of the problem. I’ve seen other (and hipper) schools where the few fraternities put out recruiting tables on the quad, with flyers saying (paraphrased) “Belong to a frat. Believe it or not, we’re actually cool.”

      As with you, I am curious as to where the Greeks are going, these days. Google produces some interesting results, suggesting that they are marketing themselves as “future leadership” organizations. Maybe so, maybe not. In these days of skyrocketing tuition, reduced classes, and students working to make ends meet, I suspect that fewer students will have the energy or resources to get involved in these groups, and the ones that do will be more upper class.

  2. Kevin Says:

    Hunh, from doing some reading on 19th century American education about a decade ago, I was under the impression that Greek life came about because of the need to organize (babysit) those 15 year old 19th century college students, but I could stand to be corrected.

  3. CBI Says:

    When I was an undergrad (mid-70s), I was not in a Greek frat, but, in retrospect, the co-op I lived in was for all practical purposes the same thing. In my case, all of us were naval officers in training.

    There really can be a lot of benefits to the “frat style” of living: one learns to take responsibilities and contribute to a community, to be willing to aid people one doesn’t necessarily particularly like, and to deal with a great diversity of people as equals.

    Some of you may’ve read R.A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In it, the protagonist comments concerning his training to the effect that it was designed to be as difficult as possible. This was to prepare soldiers not only for future battles, but to instill a sense of cameraderie and interdependence: a balance of dependency and independence.

    “Hazing”, in its historical meaning, does the same thing. I’m not talking about perverse stupidities, such as downing a fifth of vodka. I’m talking about shared experiences and challenges which serve to bind people to each other. Sociology has shown that a group forced to endure a bad situation together achieves a high level of bonding. “Hazing” has just that effect.

    Since people are human — and original sin is a scientific doctrine — there can be the tendency to go overboard. After my freshman year, I was always one of the guys who elected to be — I’m not sure of the word. Anyway, we were tasked with making durn sure that none of the upperclassmen got carried away and harmed any of the initiates. In my experience, thankfully, I seldom had to step in and, when I did, there was no problem, since the upperclassmen seemed inately to understand.

    Anyways, that reflects my experiences. There are others, of course. More task-oriented fraternities are less concerned with generating a group ethos than with working toward a common goal. (These are often “service fraternities”.) The only other fraternity I’ve been involve with (Phi Beta Kappa) was less a fraternity than an intended honor.

    The above is rather short, but I hope it helps to understand some of the positives of a “fraternity”.

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