Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Should you join a Frat?  Probably not.

Fraternities have been in the news a lot in the last few years due to a number of high-profile incidents involving date rape, gang rape, and drugging of young coeds.  In addition, there have been a number of hazing incidents, some of  which have resulted in the injury or death of young pledges.  Fraternities, what's not to like?

Some schools have actually banned fraternities and private clubs entirely.  Harvard is trying to tamp down the import of fraternities and private clubs and perhaps effectively outlaw them by preventing students from participating in certain sanctioned school activities if they belong to some of these clubs or fraternities.

It's interesting how these organizations work.  In the past, if you became a member of one of these frats, clubs, or secret societies, it was supposedly going to open up opportunities to you later in life. Famous clubs at Harvard and Yale mimic the club tradition of schools in England such as Cambridge and Oxford.

And many famous people have been members of some of these clubs leading to the speculation or more precisely, the self-fulfilling prophecy that if you join one of these clubs you will become rich and powerful.  For example, the Skull and Bones Club at Yale counts as its alumni a number of presidents including both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The top club at Harvard was the Porcellian club, and one prerequisite to joining was to come from inherited wealth.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt desperately wanted to join the Porcellian club but was blackballed by an existing member.  Somehow he managed to do okay in life without the club membership.

It may be true that joining one of these clubs or fraternity may open up opportunities to you in life, but the converse is not true, namely that if you don't belong to a club or fraternity you will be shut out from all opportunities in life.  And increasingly in our society, your success is dependent more on your performance than who you know or what fraternity or club you belonged to in college.  In fact, for many very wealthy people in country, college is almost irrelevant.

Many famous and wealthy people drop out of college because he quickly reached a point in their life where they figure out that they would make more money and become more successful outside of academia, and that obtaining a degree was really unnecessary for them.  Again, the example of Roosevelt - who became a lawyer even though he never completed law school.  Yes, back then being a lawyer met passing bar exam but did not require a law degree.  Today almost every State requires you obtain a law degree, although in Virginia you can still "read the law" and sit for the bar exam.

Should these fraternities and clubs and secret societies be shut down or discouraged?  That's more of a political question than a personal one, and you can debate that in your mind or with your friends. Some argue that these clubs are misogynist as many are all-male. Others argue there also they are racist as they limit membership, or used to limit membership to people of a certain race, namely whites-only.  And indeed, many are more were antisemitic as well in that they did exclude Jews from membership.

From personal standpoint, I think that joining fraternities can be a major distraction in your college years.  The vaunted advantages of social and business connections through your fraternity ring or secret handshake are wildly overstated.

When I was at GMI, I pledged Sigma Chi, mostly because my father went to Sigma Chi and I thought that would make him happy.  I realized that doing things in life to please my parents, once I was out of elementary school, was sort of pointless.  And then I started living my own life rather than living to their expectations.  Things got better after that.

My dad was a sort of guy who would fit in really well in a fraternity.  He was also the sort of guy who would try to use fraternity connections to get ahead in life, which I think probably just annoyed fellow fraternity members.  Even late in life, he traveled across country, staying in the homes of former fraternity "brothers", which I'm sure pissed off their wives.  After 50 or 60 years, you really don't have much in common with people you went to college with.  And your spouse doesn't need somebody they've never met sleeping on your couch.

That was the first thing about fraternities I found was false.  You are put together in a group of people who really are not your real friends.  And oftentimes your fellow "brothers" can be real jerks.  There was one fellow at the fraternity, who is sort of almost psychotic.  He took an instant dislike into me, and I'm sure if the black ball tradition was still in the fact he would have prevented me from joining. There were a few others who seemed like good fellows, and I enjoyed hanging out with them.  But a lot of the other guys were really just strangers to me, and I didn't feel any affinity or need to join. So I took a pass.

About this time, the movie Animal House come out. Prior to that time, fraternities were in steep decline in America.  To the 1960's hippie generation, the idea of fraternities and sororities seemed rather retrograde - a relic from the 1950's.  The hipsters of the 60's didn't join Greek organizations but rather hung out in crash pads with their girlfriends and had sex every night. Gender-specific organizations seemed, well, quaint and old fashioned, representing the "establishment" of their parents they were rebelling against.

Then Animal House came out and everybody decided that fraternities with the greatest party in the world and wanted to be just like Bluto.  Fraternities now had a waiting list of people wanting to join and they could back to their old selective techniques of carefully screening candidates and blackballing those they didn't want.

At GMI, we had more fraternities than we had students.  So it was kind of laughable in that every student got invitations to pledge at least two or three fraternities, as they needed warm bodies to fill the beds and pay the mortgage on the fraternity houses.  The idea that fraternities could be selective or turn away candidates was ridiculous.

And maybe this was why our fraternity "brothers" were such a disparate group.  It was really more of a housing arrangement than anything else.  And in that regard, some of the fraternities on campus would rent out rooms to people in order to make money to pay their mortgage.  I ended up staying at another fraternity, known for its heavy partying, and saw another example of the underside of fraternities.  One of the "brothers" had a girlfriend who he would beat up with on a regular basis. They would argue constantly and get into fights and then she would have a black eye.

When I asked one of the "brothers" about this, he replied that a brother doesn't get into the another brother's business.  So not only did they not try to break up these fights, they certainly didn't call 911. Fortunately, he didn't put her in the hospital or kill her, and eventually I think they broke up.

But the experience left a bad taste in my mouth about fraternities.  When I transferred to Syracuse University, the situation was entirely different.  Again, the Animal House movie had come out, and here was a school with 20,000 some students and the same number of fraternities that we had at GMI, which only had three thousand students.

As a older returning student, I was more interested in getting my degree and learning, not in socializing on campus.  Not only that, I was commuting to campus from a house that I owned, thus I didn't really need a place to stay.

It was humorous to me how some of the younger students seemed obsessed with pledging fraternities and getting in to the right fraternity, as if it were the point of college, not the course work.  A friend of mine who was a very brilliant student in high school and a great draftsman who would spend hours doing mechanical drawings or drawing pictures of cars, ended up joining a fraternity.  He was in the Engineering program and we all thought he would go very far as an Engineer.  Coming from a very strict family, he was very inexperienced in the ways of the world.  As a young pledge he discovered his new friend, alcohol, and drank his way out of his first semester of school.

And that happens to more fraternity pledges than you would like to think.  Drinking games and parties are often encouraged, and pledges are often forced to consume large amounts alcohol.  It's hard to maintain your studies when you are constantly getting drunk.  In the old days, the "old money" would go to school and never study very hard and get what was called a "Gentleman's C". This is a tradition that dates back to our British friends at schools like Oxford and Cambridge. Gentleman didn't study hard, only those strivers from the lower classes tried to get good grades.

The fraternities would maintain files of past exams as well as research papers which could be copied by the fraternity members and thus they could skate through classes with as little effort as possible, concentrating instead on the social scene, partying, and making social connections.

Back in the 1800's and early 1900's, perhaps this made sense.  You came from a family of robber barons and you wanted to make connections at school to make future business deals in life.  College was also an opportunity for a young man to make romantic connections with potential spouses of their social class.  It was also an opportunity for young men to obtain illicit sexual experience which was condoned at the time.  Women were expected to remain chaste, of course.

Sadly, a lot of those values are still present in the fraternity system today, a holdover from an earlier era where the double-standard for men and women was the norm, and social class was more important than actual knowledge.  Today, however you actually need to know something, and you have to get good grades and study something worthwhile in order to get ahead.

In that regard, these fraternities and social clubs and other organizations can be a big distraction from your college experience.  Maybe there are still a few areas of employment left today where who you know is more important than what you can do.  However I highly doubt this is the case anymore.  We live in a bottom-line society where performance is paramount.  Companies can't afford to hire people who are superfluous and don't pull their own weight.

In fields like engineering, it is put up or shut up.  If you have no idea what you're doing, the company has no use for you. Granted, much of what you learn as an engineer you learn on the job or by doing and not necessarily in coursework.  In some regards, engineering education are laughably outdated, as much as what is taught in school has no real application in life.  But the old club tie and fraternity handshake are no longer necessarily the keys to employment - after all, the hiring committee may have come from different frats.  Not only that, if you make the play for the old school tie, it sort of telegraphs that otherwise they wouldn't hire you, and thus you are not a viable candidate.

Should you pledge a fraternity? That's a personal question that's up to you. However, there is a definite risk to you if you pledge a fraternity you could end up dropping out of school or even dead as the result of hazing and pledging activities. Your reputation and life could be ruined if one of the your fellow brothers close quotes is accused of raping a young coed. There's a lot of potential downside to joining a fraternity, and not much upside unless you like to drink yourself Blotto.

The idea that some fraternity or secret club membership is going to open doors to you in the world is probably a little overstated in this day and age.  The sort of Good Old Boy networkand secret handshake thing has largely died out.  But even if it hasn't, it's still a little club that you can't join unless you come from old money.

And even if you come from old money, they might not let you join their little club as Franklin Roosevelt and found out.  What the Roosevelt example proves, however, is that not being a member of their little Club doesn't necessarily prevent you from succeeding in life.

Fraternities?  I'd take a pass.  The kind of people attracted to that sort of thing are, well, kind of jerks.  Ladies, take note.