It seems we never tire of certain controversies. Case in point: a letter to the editors of the Cornell Sun — written in 1891 — took issue with an article that dismissed fraternities as nothing but “educational mafias.” In fact, the anonymous author claimed, these “secret societies” (as they were then called) had produced Supreme Court justices, presidents and prominent men of letters. In another letter to the editors of The Sun — this one written in September 2010 — 33 fraternity chapter presidents criticized the University’s patronizing attitude; about a week earlier, they had argued that the University was attempting to “shrink the Greek system.”
Cornellians will clearly never reach consensus on this issue. But the new regulations put forth by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs force us to once again reconsider the role fraternities play on our campus.
College fraternities emerged in the 1700s as a natural outgrowth of the American secret society movement. The first was Phi Beta Kappa, established at the College of William and Mary in 1776. A secret society that doubled as a literary and social club, it inspired similar associations in the Northeast.
Though the phenomenon hit a few snags — such as the anti-secret society fervor of the 1830s — fraternities continued to grow, and by the late 1800s, they had become widespread. They flourished in the 20th century, frequently enabling marginalized groups — most notably Jews and African-Americans — to maintain cohesion on the unwelcoming college campus.
In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed fascination with private associations, suggesting that they were uniquely American. What’s more, he claimed, these private groups, not the government (as in France) or aristocrats (as in England) drove economic and social activity. He concluded that there could be no democracy without these groups.
He was correct in suggesting the distinctive American character of these associations. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the first fraternity was founded in the year of America’s independence. Fraternities embodied the American ideal of micro-communities — the small, tight-knit and disparate associations that operated within the framework of their own interests, and, when summed together, constituted our diverse republic.
It’s an idea reflected in James’ Madison’s faith in factions, and later in George H.W. Bush’s notion of the “One Thousand Points of Light”: The “community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good.”
At their best, fraternities still embody this ideal, and testify to the untrained individual’s potential for meaningful community. Each promotes communal living, vigorous social activity and occasional philanthropy.
However, as anyone who’s been around campus on a Friday night knows, they also often demonstrate our potential for sheer debauchery. For starters, there’s the excessive reliance on alcohol as a tool for social cohesion. Then, of course, there’s the hazing, the oftentimes degrading treatment of women and the generally irritating rowdiness.
But why should we care, if the members of these groups know what they’re getting into? As Tocqueville mentioned, the most important aspect of these associations is that they are voluntary; therefore, unless these groups cause obvious public harm we have no reason to interfere. And it’s far from clear that the fraternities have done anything coming close to “public harm.”
However, some reject the notion of fraternities entirely, arguing that they’re too exclusive. These critics prefer that we strive towards a broad “Cornell community,” much like the Progressives of the early 20th century argued that Americans should transcend their petty differences to create a “national community.”
I’d argue that not only is such a goal unrealistic, but even if it were, it’s not worth pursuing. Any community conjured up and imposed by a small group of elites (intellectuals in the case of the Progressive movement, university administrators in the case of Cornell) will necessarily be bland and meaningless. Real community emerges organically, far away from the machinations of the self-proclaimed “community-builders.”
The true “Cornell community,” in fact, is the sum of many private associations that oftentimes have nothing to do with one another. Therefore, we should support the fraternities, not, certainly, because we approve of their culture, but because they stand as exemplars of real, organic community — no matter how distasteful those communities actually may be. It may sound disingenuous — as anyone who’s been here for Rush Week can attest — but perhaps more than any other organization on campus, fraternities demonstrate our capacity for civilization.
Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at email@example.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.