January 23, 2011

Greek Life: Preserving the Polis

Print More

An argument defending Greek letter houses.

In response to the French Revolution, the philosopher Edmund Burke attributed the anger of the revolutionaries to their hatred of “the condition of a gentleman” rather than to hatred of the monarchy. I believe that Burke’s observation stemmed from a disappointment in the revolutionaries for failing to consider the drawbacks of their campaign, and for ignoring the ways in which the monarchy may have preserved virtue in society. In this respect, I was disappointed when I read Cody Gault’s Thursday column “Say No To Greek Life”, not because he correctly pointed out problems inherent to the Greek system, but because his article makes absolutely no attempt to understand exactly who or what he wants to see leave. Must there not exist something virtuous in the Greek system, something that has lured many of the country’s greatest minds to subject themselves to hazing, since the birth of the first Greek letter society on December 5, 1776?

The failure to consider this question is nothing new. Cornellians have always disdained Cornell fraternities. The opacity of Greek organizations hides a world of good and bad activities from the Cornell community. And yes, they are sexist. Cornell’s animosity towards the Greek system has existed for as long as its tendency to treat the Greek system as a mass, rather than as a group of individuals. A History of Cornell notes that in 1868, Cornell’s non-Greeks organized against the newly instituted fraternity system and declared that fraternities were “the foulest blots upon college life.”  Yet even Morris Bishop, who wrote A History of Cornell, seems to view all Greek members as one entity. The fraternity as an institution is “a resort of the wealthy” and informs seventeen year olds “that they are goats, not sheep.”

Critics of the fraternity system love to make generalizations about the individuals within the system, as if the traits of a “few bad apples” exist uniformly throughout the body. This just isn’t true. It is true though that Greek life depends on exclusivity to maintain itself. Yet while this problem continues to plague fraternities and sororities, the Greek system has at no time been a more inclusive institution. If the system can use diversity to its advantage, it will remain a lasting body at Cornell for years to come.

Moreover, the reason that fraternities and sororities should remain on Cornell’s campus is because they preserve an ancient sort of politics that is essential to democracy. The great political theorist Hannah Arendt praised the Greek polis for its ability to provide men “with a space of appearances where they could act, with a kind of theater where freedom could appear.” To effectively govern, it is essential “to establish and keep in existence a space where freedom as virtuosity can appear.” Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that free associations in the United States possessed a physical space where men deliberated. Says Tocqueville of free associations, “There men see each other; executive measures are planned; opinions spread with a force and zeal which the written word can never achieve.”

When you join a fraternity or sorority, you are physically forced to face your brothers and sisters around you. If you live on West Campus or elsewhere you may still engage those around you at all times, but doing so is not mandatory. In these cases it is easy to surround yourself with people who hold the same general opinions. In the Greek system, fellow brothers and sisters with whom you disagree never disappear. Sitting in the same room together, you are forced to hear their opinions and compelled to think about your own convictions in relation to theirs.

Herein lies the greatest strength of the Greek system; that it forces a body of individuals to determine right and wrong in front of its other members. In a world where most discussion occurs online, it is imperative that we recognize the physical spaces in which we meet. Campus clubs also achieve this end. The difference between Greek houses and other clubs, again, is that the former compels their members to appear in front of others at all times. Thus when you enter a house you commit to acting as a political being, a person whose actions will at the very least affect the people directly around them. If you want the Greek system to open up to the entire community, then force it to do good deeds; don’t seek to eliminate it altogether.

For university students to change the world they must begin in a place where the odds of doing so are improbable. Otherwise it becomes difficult for the average college student to comprehend the forces that oppose their opinions. The only time I have truly been forced to articulate the moral values that I have developed during my lifetime was face-to-face with all of my fraternity brothers, in moments when they were making decisions that I did not want to represent. It was a challenge that greatly enriched my worldview and sense of self and I never felt like I compromised my morals in the process. Like everyone I have regrets. Fraternity or not I would have had regrets anyways.

Original Author: Joey Anderson