April 25, 2013

STALEY: A Real-Life Animal House

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Look around at Cornell. The most contentious campus political discussion is over one of the most infamous symbols of the American college experience: the fraternity house. Some of these houses are tight with the Trustees and the University, some are under probation and face disbandment. A rigorous hierarchy within the Greek system causes inter-fraternity rivalries; this hierarchy is largely dependent on the wealth of the house and its brothers. There is a dean (or maybe associate dean of students) who is either looked at as a repressive buzzkill or a principled progressive. The situation begs the obvious comparison to the most notorious college movie ever released, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and its countless shameless imitations (Old School, Van Wilder etc.).

Cornell isn’t quite studious enough to resemble Harvard in 1973’s The Paper Chase, not loose enough to be the invented South Harmon Institute of Technology in Accepted, definitely not politically active enough to be the Wesleyan-like Port Chester University in PCU and too conceited to be University of Ithaca in Road Trip; minus the difference in time periods, Animal House’s Faber College fits Cornell’s social atmosphere just about right. The polarization of Cornell’s different communities is strong enough to look like the exaggerated forces that make up an underdog protagonist and diabolical antagonist in a traditional Hollywood production. Although the comparison to these movies is fun and may make fraternities or the administration feel as though their struggle is noble enough to be a Hollywood cliché, Animal House ends with the Delta Tau Chi members being kicked off campus and out of school and likely forced into the military. To fight back against the authorities, they unleash havoc on the local town parade, championing recklessness and hedonism over the humorlessness and conventionality of the local squares.

This makes for a great ending to an underdog movie. The underdogs win in their own fashion and their spirits are not extinguished by the dean’s punishments. The brothers bond. The audience leaves ecstatic and likely inspired to fantasize about future college shenanigans, become nostalgic over past college experience or hike up a heavy tab at the nearest bar. This, however, is not the ending anybody wants at Cornell.

The players in this political drama (Administration, Fraternity etc.) are polarized but both have their share of folly — namely repression. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck writes, “repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.” This notion could either rationalize Fraternity’s hazing period, which seeks to bond pledges via work and subjugation, or explain why the Greek community has gathered together under antagonism toward the University and the IFC’s new regulations. No matter how benevolent the intention, an authority suppressing activity  with threats of punishment is re­pression. Like­wise, hazing is a serious form of social repression and can often teeter into sinister behavior.

Unlike the ending of Animal House, a sound ending to this tension would emphasize the individual over the collective and would come from initiation instead of force. To reach this sort of ending, the administration must end its measures to monitor activities at fraternities and individual fraternity members must step up against their more irrational traditions and work to prevent the incidents that have erupted into scandal — including sexual abuse, lethal overconsumption and plain bullying. Traditions are venerated through time, not reason. Students will be academic or responsible at their own will; the University will never change that. The university is miscalculating the power of regulation. Prohibitions create transgressions. I want students to have a community like that Greek Life offers. I also think under-aged students should have a place to drink or experiment (or just get high) with the more benign drugs students inevitably pursue. At the same time, I hope that students won’t feel the need to emulate the recklessness that is championed in these classic college films and that the social behavior can continue with a spirit of self reliance and self regulation.

The conflict between administration and brotherhoods has followed the script of any screwball college narrative so far. As the conflict reaches its third plot point, the University should let students create the ending. They will be surprised at students’ ability to defy the classic representation of careless college students in movies and impressed by their capacity for self-governance.

Original Author: Henry Staley