Fraternities and Democracy


By LIONEL CROCKER, Faculty Adviser for Ohio Mu Chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Delivered at the Ninth Annual Leadership School of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Evanston, Ill., August 24, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 766-768

THE college fraternity is a peculiarly American institution. No other land has its counterpart. I found Japanese students eager to learn about the way young men in America lived together on such intimate terms. It is not strange that the college fraternity flowered in our type of society. The fraternity has been the breeding place of culture and leadership for American life. American life during the past 100 years would have been much the poorer without the contribution of the college fraternity. The son of the small town banker, the son of the proprietor of a large wholesale grocery and the son of the college professor met in the college fraternity and gave and received American culture.

Boys whose parents never went to college find a way of life exemplified in the American fraternity which has made their own existence more pleasurable. Horizons have been lifted; loyalties have been widened. The American College fraternity has been an underestimated force in the development and the perpetuation of American ideals.

The college fraternity has developed leaders from the common life. Boys of teen age have been forced to assume leadership which would have been impossible in a dormitory. A boy of 19 becomes president of a group of 50 compeers and he is forced to develop qualities of leadership.

Every fraternity urges, nay compels, its members to take pert in the management of the campus. Every 17-year-old who joins a fraternity is compelled to learn the art of leadership on the college campus. So important has the fraternity deemed leadership that it has frequently sacrificed scholarship for leadership. The President's Report of the University of Michigan for 1941-42 comparing grades of those in residence halls with those in fraternities and sororities declares, "It may be further observed that independent freshmen men and independent freshmen women achieve better scholastic results in the residence halls than do their classmates who have become affiliated with fraternities and sororities in the first term of their residence in the University." But Robert Cooley Angell in writing on this aspect of the fraternity in his book The Campus declares that the scholarship of fraternities over a period of time is equal to that of independents. Professor Angell states, "The percentage of independents elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Michigan, for instance, runs no higher over a period of years than that of fraternity and sorority members. The solution is not to eliminate these groups but to develop students with interest in intellectual matters. Once this is achieved fraternities and sororities could be of service in providing a means for the satisfaction of this interest. Nothing could be more stimulating than association with a congenial group of young people all eager in their pursuit of knowledge."

There are forces at work seeking to undermine the college fraternity. Administrators, impatient with the faults or young men living together, seek to build dormitories with federal funds where they will have all the youth under their thumbs. But the value of fraternities outweigh their weaknesses. Would it not be far wiser to keep the fraternities and work with them to eliminate their mistakes than to destroy them altogether? And one wonders if by exchanging fraternity life for dormitory life administrators do not but exchange one set of problems for another. And in the exchange the values of fraternity living are irretrievably lost George Starr Lasher, Editor of The Rattle of Theta Chi states there is no experience for young men equal to that of the fraternity: "I am certain that there is no experience quite equal to fraternity life to give individuals the social discipline which is important for them as members of a socialized world. While dormitory life has its value, it is not nearly as adequate as fraternity life for the social development of individuals. In fact, I am coming more and more convinced that there is no real substitute for the fraternity, and that is why I am certain that it will not only continue to exist, but it will become more thoroughly appreciated in the years ahead and will be able to make a finer contribution than it has in the past."

Herbert Hoover once said that no one ever fought for a boarding house. One might paraphrase this and say that no one ever fought for a dormitory. Loyal fraternity members have strengthened the college. Independents seldom return to homecomings because they have no loyalty to a group and, incidentally, because they have no place to lay their heads, no place to eat with a group of congenial fellows, no place to sing a group of common songs, no place of common loyalty.

One wonders if the tendency toward building dormitories which will crowd out the college fraternity is not a symptom of the movement toward centralized control of every aspect of life, the movement toward regimentation. Personally, I want to see fraternities resist this change.

As a faculty adviser of a college fraternity I have sought to build attitudes within the group rather than to promulgate rules.

We sometimes find fraternities bound by a narrow loyalty to their members and they sacrifice loyalty to honor, bound by a false standard of scholarship they sacrifice loyalty to their intellectual best, bound by false standards of fellowship they sacrifice loyalty to wholesome living, bound by loyalty to good looks and good clothes they sacrifice loyalty to genius and ability, bound by loyalty to conformity they sacrifice loyalty to individuality, bound by loyalty to a caste system they sacrifice loyalty to the democratic way of life, bound by a narrow loyalty to their own fraternity they sacrifice loyalty to the brotherhood of men, bound by a loyalty to paganism they sacrifice loyalty to God.

I have a dream that some day sophomores will wait on the freshmen instead of the other way around. I have a dream that fraternities will strive to live op to their ideals of brotherhood. I have a dream that some day the fraternitywill go out of its way to share its brotherhood with those who need fraternal care. Many boys are needy in the sense that they have personality needs. One fraternity by choice took a chance on a boy who had been turned down by the other fraternities on the campus. This boy was a debater and was unusually contentious. He always seemed to be in an obstinate mood. But his fellow debaters saw behind his front. They saw a lovable fellow who needed companionship and who adopted this superior attitude to cover up his sense of inadequacy. His name was brought up several times but he was always rejected. Finally, in his junior year the attempt succeeded. In no time at all the attitude of the young man changed. Now he was wanted. Now he belonged to a group. There was no longer any need of appearing, superior for he was an equal. He was helpful, willing, and dropped his combative spirit. Even the college authorities noticed the miracle. And the new member gave much in the way of intellectual interests to the group.

And I have a dream that fraternity men will some day realize that all is not gold that glitters. Too often fraternities attempt to get boys who are already good fraternity men. I remember a lad who came to college from a small town with clothes that did not fit, a necktie that should have been thrown away, and hair that simply would not lie down. The brothers turned thumbs down, but in a year they were glad to pledge him as his energy and brains had landed him a job as circulation manager of The Michigan Daily. He has since become president of the alumni society of that fraternity. The lounge lizards did not see beneath the surface. They did not see that he had been a scoutmaster in hishome town, that he taught a Sunday School class, that everyone in his home town knew him by his first name. The fraternity is often deceived by ornament as Shakespeare said. Let us dream of what fraternities could do if they could catch the gleam of brotherhood operating in the world. Suppose that fraternities would offer scholarships to worthy young students from South America. Or, suppose that lacking funds, the fraternity would invite one of the Spanish speaking students on the campus to join the fraternity. Such a student would return to South America a center of goodwill for the United States and the world.

Suppose that your fraternity would go out of its way to show the spirit of brotherhood to the Japanese students on your campus. Have them over for a meal. Have a discussion group on Japanese-American relations and invite these brilliant youngsters to participate. What a force for understanding one of these Japanese students would be, as he returns in months to come to live among his people on the Pacific coast, if he had the experience of having fraternity men show him the spirit of brotherhood! Why don't the fraternities take the lead?

Suppose you men so caught the spirit of brotherhood that you took the lead in recognizing men for what they are rather than for their color. Anyone who has read the life of George Washington Carver knows how his soul cried out for the balm of brotherhood. In Greenfield Village I saw the house that Henry Ford had built especially for this genius. Henry Ford did not want his friend to suffer the indignities of not being able to find a place to lay his head. Am I asking too much? Yes, I am asking too much of aself-centered, narrow, rigid caste system. But I am not asking too much of a movement that might change the destiny of the world.

I have a dream of men continuing their interest in fraternity life as long as they live. In the fraternity we have one of the world's greatest youth movements. It is not based on the false premises of Hitler's Jugend. It has no less a premise than the brotherhood of man.

Will you ten years from now be interested in your fraternity? Will you be one to offer a reward to the boy who makes Phi Beta Kappa in your fraternity? Will your name be on the cup given to the boy who becomes editor of his college newspaper? Will you be the one who establishes a library in your fraternity? Will you be the one to edit the songs of your fraternity? Will you be the one who helps establish an employment bureau for the graduates of your fraternity? Will you be the one that heads the rushing committee in your home town for your fraternity? I read recently in The Phi Gamma Delta, "When Calvin Coolidge became president he autographed photographs and sent one to each chapter. It was a gracious thing to do. It was characteristic of his deep fraternity devotion. The Marine Band played the strains of Phi Gamma Delta's 'Still to Thee' at his inauguration." Leaving his office at the White House, Richard Lloyd Jones said, " 'Mr. President, I have seen your autographed photograph on the walls of several of the chapters. The boys certainly prize your picture.' He gave a happy, Yankee wink, saying, 'I always loved to rush.'" Keep your interest in your fraternity for that is a way to keep interested in the youth of this land.

L. G. Balfour is optimistic about the future of fraternities. He wrote me, "Personally I am very optimistic about the future of the fraternity system. I have recommended and a great many fraternities have accepted a program whereby the alumni are given active status for the duration of the war and charged ten dollars a year dues, this money to be used to maintain the chapter and also for the purpose of aiding or establishing U.S.O. headquarters. The War Department is quite eager that all uniformed men be given an opportunity to join fraternities. Accordingly, I am certain that initiations for the war period will be much higher than most people anticipate. After the war there will be a Greek letter fraternity renaissance. The Canadian Government is going to offer subsidies to the boys to return to college, and I think our Government will do likewise. The biggest complication will be the fact that each chapter will have two types of men, (1) the older experienced type who have been in the Service, and (2) the young boys. It is going to be difficult to coordinate their efforts. Some colleges are going in for dormitories but this should cause no worry. The fraternities enjoyed their greatest strength when they merely had meeting halls. Besides after the war the drift will be against regimentation."

We should not depend upon a drift. We should have a plan. Our form of government needs leaders. Democracy believes in the worth of the individual. My plea is that the fraternity resist the tendency toward regimentation in whatsoever form it springs up on the college campus. As an active member of your fraternity and later as a member of the alumni council resist with all your strength the attempt to do away with the college fraternity. The fraternity has more strong points than weak ones! Dean John O. Mosely, the originator of this Leadership School, before the Oregon Inter-fraternity Conference, gave the purpose of the fraternity with which we would all agree, "The duty of the fraternity is to make better men and if it cannot fulfill this duty there is no real reason for its existence."