History of the Fraternity System
Harvard, the first American college and prototype for the entire American college system, was patterned after the colleges of England. Harvard copied every English custom it was possible to copy: the dormitory (or commons) system of living, the classical curriculum, the degree requirements, and the strict student discipline. If Harvard had been patterned after the continental universities, which had no resident students, there might never have been a reason for establishing fraternities.
The rigid discipline of the early American colleges eventually led to the need for fraternities. Most students were quite young, the average age of one freshman class in 1753 being 15 years and five months. One boy was 12. And these youngsters were subjected to a stern and unbending routine of strict rules and regulations for every minute of the 24 hours. Punishment for infractions was harsh and included whippings. The disciplinary excesses of the English schools, so vividly described in David Copperfield, were carried wholesale into the American colleges. Pages and pages of laws for students were enforced at most schools until well after 1800.
The curriculum was just as rigid: Greek, Latin, lots and lots of religion, some mathematics, a little philosophy, and geography. There was no room for originality of thought.
Put these very young students into the bleak and austere dormitory of the day, in inadequately heated rooms with poor light. Feed them meager rations of bad foods, burden them with hundreds of rules, punish them, force them into a lockstep curriculum, then supervise them with a police force of teachers who watched them like hawks for 24 hours a day - and you have all the elements of a powder keg ready to blow.
And blow it did. School after school had riots, most of which were called "Bread and Butter Rebellions" because they were in protest against bad food. A spectacular outbreak at Harvard in 1766 was led by Asa Dunbar, the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau, who rallied the student body with the cry, "Behold, our butter stinketh!" Most of the student body of 155 boys was expelled. One suspects, however, that any reason was used as an excuse for riot. One violent protest at Yale was called the Conic Section Rebellion, and started over a change in the method of teaching mathematics.
Wholesale expulsions were common. There was no commencement at the University of Alabama in 1837 or at Indiana Asbury (now DePauw) in 1857 because the entire senior classes at each of these institutions were expelled.
Fights and rebellions took place at every school. In fact, the era prior to the Civil War was generally known as "the age of rowdies, riots, and rebellions."
Every freshman class was subjected to extensive hazing, of a degree of brutality which can be described as barbaric. Severe injuries were common, and occasionally a boy was killed. Naturally, the freshmen fought back, and gradually arose formalized class battle, some of which raged for days. These class fights were called "rushing." This may be the origin of the fraternity word "rush."
The result of these class battles was that each class was united against every other class, and the classes were united against the faculty - the authority figures who enforced the rules. The spirit of camaraderie among the students was a driving force toward the creation of the more dedicated, more devoted, and more idealistic personal friendships in those smaller groups which would be called fraternities.
In this period of political upheaval and social change, the students were deeply interested in what was going on. It is understandable that they wanted to discuss ideas and events, despite the stern discipline imposed upon them. And since they had no opportunity, under the rules of the college, to talk openly and freely together, they decided to meet secretly.
Phi Beta Kappa was born in 1776 and so was the United States. Each of these new entities shared common elements: a protest against authoritarianism, and an assertion of rights - the right of free assembly, free speech, and free association.
William R. Baird, in his Manual of American College Fraternities, lists Phi Beta Kappa as "the first American society bearing a Greek letter name." It was founded at William and Mary on December 5, 1776. Originally, its character was typical of the literary societies of the day. It used the Greek alphabet in naming its "branches" or chapters. It had a grip, a ritual, and a motto, which has remained unchanged throughout the fraternity's existence: "Philosophy, the Guide (or Helmsman) of Life."
Phi Beta Kappa also had a program for expansion, and quickly spread to other schools. Because the structure of the fraternity was so similar to the secret lodges of the Freemasonry, anti-Masonic agitation of the 1820's forced Phi Beta Kappa to abandon its secret nature and become the scholastic honorary we know today.
However, the idea of fraternities was too appealing to be abandoned.
From about 1790 to 1840, the fervor expended on class fights and rioting over bad food extended to the Literary Societies and Debating Societies. For over 50 years these societies were the strongest force in American student life. Politics was the chief interest of the general populace, and this enthusiasm was reflected on the campuses in the activities of the societies, which were called by classical names such as Athenian, Philomathean, and Alexandrian.
Their structure was very like that of our modern fraternities. They had secret meetings, badges, colors, and mottoes. Their members were elected and the rivalry between societies for getting new members was intense. For instance, at the beginning of each school year, committees of students met the train to "spike" new students.
But the societies were too large for the cultivation of close friendships - each campus typically had two such societies and the entire enrollment of the school belonged to one or the other. Students felt a deep need to express their ideas and ideals, to express them united in a brotherhood, and to be allowed to make their own decisions. Fraternities evolved primarily to meet this need, while in the process absorbing many of the characteristics of the societies, including their literary flavor.
The boredom of the students also contributed to the popularity of fraternities. Classes followed a fixed and dull routine. When classes were over, there was nothing to do. The colleges offered no extracurricular activities. Most of the schools were located in small towns with no recreational facilities. So the fraternities provided fun and relaxation, furnished a setting for the students' discussions, and absorbed their members' interests and energies.
Fraternities spread quickly. Six were founded at Union College between 1825 and 1847. These soon opened chapters at other schools, or spawned rivals through the process of dissatisfaction and division, or inspired other individuals to start new fraternities on their own.
Fraternities increased, but not without obstacles. Mark Hopkins, president of Williams, wrote to President Humphrey of Amherst to see if there was not something they could do to stop fraternities. (Later on when Hopkins admitted defeat, he was gracious enough to concede that at least the fraternities had improved the manners of the undergraduates.)
The principle objection to fraternities was their secrecy, and it is ironic that many fraternities went underground to avoid harassment from faculty who were caught up in the great Anti-Masonic movement of the early 19th century.
Simply on general principles, the average faculty member opposed any student societies. Part of this feeling was created by the nature of the colleges. Most of them were denominational schools, emphasizing piety and religion and discouraging "free thinking." Administrations banned fraternities, snoopy professors acted as police-detectives, and many "sinful" students were suspended.
Never underestimate the ingenuity of students. In a sort of reverse twist on the admonition "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em," they began inviting professors to become members of their fraternities, and faculty opposition gradually disappeared. It is a principle that still works.
The Civil War almost eliminated fraternities. And yet fraternity histories record stories of boys in blue and gray who slipped thought the lines at night to meet together in hasty chapter meetings. There are stories, too, of loyal ladies like Lucie Pattie, who kept Sigma Alpha Epsilon's ritual and papers safe throughout the war.
Prior to the Civil War, fraternities were a form of protest against authoritarianism. After the Civil War, fraternities took over a vital function of campus life because of financial problems in the colleges: most colleges deliberately ceased providing room and board and supervision for the students.
Thus grew the tradition of the college boarding house, made so famous in the literature of the period. A few eastern schools had palatial residence halls constructed by private builders, but it was fraternities, and later sororities, which transformed what had primarily been a social group into an organization providing residential facilities. Fraternity row became as much a part of the campus as the lecture hall. Even the campus jargon changed, and the word "house" became synonymous for "fraternity" as in the question, "What house are you in?"
Fraternities rapidly took charge. They furnished centers of sociability and good times. They arranged for parties and dances and hay-rides and picnics. They furnished comfortable housing and a good dining room. They provided idealism and friendship. And there is another element we cannot ignore if we are being honest. There was an element of prestige in the 19th century fraternity. The critics would call it "snob appeal." Who you were - that is, how wealthy your family was - was very important. Membership in a fraternity was necessary to gain recognition as being one of a special caste, the social elite.
College students were already a part of a special caste, for higher education in the 19th century was largely reserved for the children of the well-to-do and prominent families. Fewer than 150,000 students were enrolled in our colleges in 1870, representing less than two percent of the population aged 18 to 21.
So this snob appeal was not confined exclusively to fraternities. It was characteristic of the age. At schools not having fraternities, student groups such as eating clubs flourished which were just as exclusive and concerned with social privilege.
It was the growing popularity of intercollegiate sports which began to break down the lines of class distinction. One British writer, commenting on American College sports at the turn of the century, observed: "Harvard may secretly rejoice when it can put a winning team on the field whose names suggest the Mayflower, but it would rather put on a team that can beat Yale."
So we had men coming to college whose family origins or wealth meant nothing as long as they could kick or run. And these young men pledged fraternities, because fraternities like glory, too. Sports tore down more than goal posts, they tore down barriers of social class.
Originally, fraternities emphasized learning and scholarship. The lamp of knowledge is one of the favorite symbols on fraternity crests. But when much of the fraternity emphasis shifted to recreation and housing, fraternities acquired a frivolous reputation and were accused of being "country clubs."
To counteract this contention, a new emphasis was put on scholarship, and consistently through the years since World War I, the scholarship averages for Greek letter societies have been above the all-student averages.
The change in the campus picture between the Civil War and World War I included one of the great contributions of fraternities - a free-will gift emanating from the nature of fraternities themselves. Fraternities began to demonstrate their loyalty to the school by supporting campus programs and projects. Greeks sponsored homecoming celebrations, parent's day, visiting days for high school students. Greeks put on shows and festivals and carnivals. All this is fun, but it also costs money, and most schools have no budgets for such added attractions. Furthermore, fraternities fostered the school spirit and affection which produced strong corps of supportive alumni and alumnae.
Then prior to World War I, Greek philanthropy started - quietly at first, with individual chapter efforts to help others. Scholarship grants were established to help students. Chapters fed and clothed children, bought glasses for those with poor sight, sponsored dental clinics, helped in vaccination efforts, donated blood, etc. Today almost every fraternity has a national philanthropy on which it concentrates its efforts.
The entire fraternity system was transformed by the social upheaval of the 1960's and early '70's. Draft laws and the GI Bill flooded colleges with students, altering the make up of the student bodies. With the coming of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam, a new spirit of activism arose on campus which, in the minds of many, rightfully placed fraternities squarely in the path of an attack. Bill Landers, in the March, 1970 issue of The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta, described the atmosphere.
"There was, of course, nothing lighthearted about the death lists from Viet Nam, the squalor of the ghettos, the sorrowful history of black Americans in our society, and the countless other cultural cancers which these students took on as their own personal crosses to bear. Zealots and true believers have no time for frivolous time-wasting activities such as float parades and dress-up dances. Time was very much with us, and if we were to have the world's ills cured by next Thursday there was certainly no time for a beer bust on Wednesday
"The '60's was the decade of the individual. While grooving your own groove was considered groovy, being a functioning cog meshed into a group existence was definitely a bummer. And so the Greeks came to represent everything the aware student of the new era seemed to find most objectionable about society. Structured organization. Demands of loyalty for ancient and outdated canons. A submersion of individual desires for the realization of group success and achievement."
The Greeks had weathered attacks from many quarters, but never from their own peers. Students had always ached to join fraternities; now many wanted to torch them.
Rush yields plummeted. To make memberships more palatable, pledge education was de-emphasized or even dropped altogether. But new members still became steadily fewer and fraternities everywhere struggled to stay financially afloat. Many failed and closed their doors forever.
The struggle for survival was a loosening agent for the entire system. The Greeks were forced into a reappraisal of what fraternities and sororities had become, and they found plenty to reappraise. They took steps to wipe out the idiocy of hazing, which they realized had no purpose other than the morbid entertainment of the members. They also did away with their aristocratic outlook. Membership, long reserved for the "right" people, became freely available to those of no "social status." Today, this change is still apparent: everyone is "right" for some fraternity on his campus.
For a time, membership became so available that women were inducted into many chapters. This move was usually linked to the realities of economic survival and a breakdown in communication between the chapter and its alumni and national directors. Also contributing to the trend were the demands of many previously all-male colleges which opened their doors to women during this period. To ensure equality of opportunity for the new female students, these colleges required fraternities to induct women as well. To this day, some of these chapters enthusiastically retain their coeducational character.
During this time of reappraisal, fraternities opened up to more issues. Many chapters became centers of activism themselves. Committed to the goals of the student movement yet loyal to their fraternities, these Greeks used the steady base of their organizations to discover and communicate their feelings on social issues. This was what their founders had intended. Fraternities could still offer both camaraderie and identity and an opportunity for self-expression - a mature activism that most of the ad hoc students groups of the time could not offer. Fraternities survived: the SDS and the communes did not.
So transformed by this period of reappraisal, fraternities began to again reflect the contemporary needs and desires of the students, and in so doing, they began their slow recovery to full strength. Even the most militant of students realized that there are more benefits to group involvement, that being part of a group does not mean losing one's individuality, that interaction with others is a vital catalyst to self-development. This was a lesson that had already been learned, in another time of social upheaval a century and a half earlier, by the men who founded our fraternities. They were confident, as we are, that fraternities will survive, because the need will always be there.