The essay below deals with college fraternities as described in Nicholas Syrett’s book The Company He Keeps and was originally published in The Dartmouth Review by Jared W. Zelski in 2009. It is reprinted here, somewhat abridged for space but hopefully not much worse off for the butchering.
Fraternities—bastions of masculinity that educe prestige and respect—have always served the same purpose: to confer status and regard upon members, not as students or individuals, but as males in the purest sense. The context of fraternities may change over time, but the point is the same: “Many factors—class, race, religiosity, sexuality, athleticism, recklessness—contribute to particular versions of masculinity at different times, but the end result is the same: some men are considered more masculine than others…”
The fight over who is most “manly,” as a 19th century student would say, inevitably results in tensions between those who exert the characteristic and those who feel threatened by competition; and since fraternal masculinity is only cultivated by means of exclusion, relationships between Greek members and outsiders have been sometimes strained. Until recently, fraternities were largely a means of cementing middle and upper class status, whiteness and Protestantism being the two main requisites for membership.
Fraternity brothers define their masculinity in terms of what they are not. For instance, poor people, women, minorities, and homosexuals have all, at some point, served as foils. “A man was the opposite of a boy, and fraternity men were often very eager to define themselves as men.” This quest has become institutionalized in Greek houses, who “self-consciously valorize heterosexual behavior.” This affirmation of manliness has had negative effects on outsiders, yet at the same time, it has also produced some of the most successful people. Fraternity culture has bred a disproportionate number of senators, congressmen, and presidents.
The founding of fraternities dates back to 1825 at Union College, where students formed secret societies named for Greek letters. By the 1850’s, secret societies had surfaced all over New England campuses to assert student autonomy over faculty. The founders of these societies chose Greek letters because most of them were students of ancient Greek classics: “to be Greek was to hearken back to the ancients, to the ideals of the founding of Western Civilization.”
Fraternities during the 1800’s were largely academic, fostering robust debate among members. Potential members saw two main reasons for joining – “literary pursuits” and “camaraderie” – although one’s “oratorical skill” was considered one of several “prerequisites for manliness.” in the early 19th century, “college students valued intelligence as one of the elements of a properly enacted masculinity, but believed it should come naturally or, at the very least, be cultivated in privacy.” The classic archetype of the Dartmouth man is in this belief – one intellectually superior yet both “outdoorsy” and “rough.”