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Thursday, March 20, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

If you’re tired of reading about the crazy winter weather of early 2014 and about Flight 370, or about Crimea or Beyonce or Ashley Judd or Johnny Weir or Phil Jackson and the Knicks, there’s an interesting article in The Atlantic about fraternity life in the 21st Century (“The Dark Power of Fraternities” by Caitlin Flanagan).

I wasn’t aware of the bad things that have been going on at the frat houses over the past decade or two. I’ve been out of college for almost 40 years now, and during my undergrad years I had almost nothing to do with fraternities. (More on that “almost” qualification in a moment).

There were a handful of frats at my engineering school, and like all frats they offered their members more beer, partying and sexual adventure than the average schlug got. But most of us average schlugs were still living at home and commuting to school, just trying to get thru a difficult curriculum taught on a not-very-picturesque campus located in an inner-city neighborhood. Hanging out on campus and partying on-site after class was not really a top-priority for most of us. The frat kids were usually the ones with better bodies and better personalities, who would have a great social life with or without an old brownstone across the street to pop into after class.

But despite their Friday night parties, the frats at my school seemed pretty innocuous. We never heard any reports of severe injuries or sexual assaults or police visits, back in my day. The Greek guys (my school was mostly guys back then) weren’t the smartest kids, but they got thru and graduated OK. So it surprised me to read Ms. Flannigan’s article about all the problems and nasty stuff happening in fraternity-land today. If Ms. Flannigan got the story right, male fraternity houses are the downfall of many a young man and some young women (she does not mention sorority houses at all; this crisis appears to be entirely testosterone-related). Often those falls are quite literal; a lot of the brothers and their guests wind up taking a spill out a window or a porch and suffer serious injuries and sometimes death. Then there are the house fires. And most upsetting, too many of the young female visitors are sexually assaulted; we’re not talking here about drunken girls becoming a little too easy and regretting it the next day. We are talking clear, forceful male coercion. All of this harmful behavior is fueled by the standard elixir of the Greek deities, alcohol.

And also just a whole lot of immaturity. Once again, back when I was in school, I never heard of any of this stuff happening. Of course, as Ms. Flannigan points out, fraternities weren’t all that popular with college students in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. They caught back on in the 1980’s, and the new breed of Greeks seemed ready to take it beyond the old limits, inspired by John Belushi in Animal House. Furthermore, at an engineering school, you would expect that the average student would be a tad more serious and studious than at most liberal arts schools, given the rigor of the coursework. But to be honest, the frat guys at my school weren’t your average techie engineer geeks; they were mostly guys who would go into management or start their own businesses. Not all that different from frat boys anywhere else, I would guess.

I realize that the world of today is very different from the 1970’s when I was in school. I suspect that kids now have different sorts of parents and different social attitudes to deal with. Their career opportunities are certainly more problematic than the ones we faced (not that we had it easy; I had to wait 6 months until getting a real job after graduating; although I hear too many stories of kids today with bachelors degrees who can’t get any sort of professional job). Ms. Flannigan focuses on the lawyers for the frat organizations and college administrators as the bad guys in this dilemma. But I can’t help but wonder if today’s college freshmen are just not as mature and responsible as the freshmen of a generation ago were. I can’t help but wonder if parental over-empasis on developing the child’s “self-esteem” and overly-protective parenting (see the Atlantic article in the latest issue about that) have turned a lot of children into . . . well, permanent children.

As to myself . . . I mostly kept my nose to the grindstone in college, spending a lot of time studying and doing research to keep my grades up. I had my hobbies and diversions, but I avoided most parties and didn’t drink any alcoholic beverages at all. Well, not until just a few days before graduation. I was working on a senior year class project with a team that included a frat brother. As we were putting the final touches on our final report in late May, I had to deliver something to the Greek dude one afternoon. He asked me to run it up to him at his house. It was a warm, pleasant spring afternoon and I didn’t object to the 2-block walk, so I got to the door of his brownstone and knocked.

I was just going to hand the envelope over and get back to campus, as it was about time for the drive home. All of my other classes and tests and projects were finished, no need to stop at the library or see a professor that afternoon. I mostly wanted to get away from the place, given the lack of success I was having in finding a job (we all started taking interviews back in January and I totally struck out; but not to feel all that bad, given that hardly anyone else had landed a post-graduation gig, given the big economic downturn going on at the time).

Anyway, the frat guy answered and immediately invited me in. As I said, I wanted to get home; but on the other side of the coin, I was a bit curious. I never was in a fraternity house over my 4 years. So OK, I decided to be sociable, maybe just a quick look-about before getting back to the parking lot. Well, my Greek associate sat me down at the bar and took a quick look at the papers I delivered. We briefly chatted about the materials, then got on into the ugly subject that nearly everyone in my class was talking about . . . i.e., the terrible job market and the fruitless interviews that most of us were experiencing.

After a bit of commiseration the guy got out a beer glass and poured himself a cold one. And of course he wanted me to have one too. Normally I would have begged off, especially since I never drank beer or any other kind of booze. My parents had let me taste their drinks when I was quite young; they had a theory that if you knew something about liquor, it wouldn’t seem so attractive to you. With my brother (family brother, not frat brother), that didn’t really work. With me, perhaps it did.

But back to my frat house visit . . . college was all but over for me, and what had it come to? At the time, it seemed like a big failure, a big goose egg in my life. So, I threw it to the winds and let my fraternity friend pour me a brew. I sipped it with him over the next 15 or 20 minutes, not letting on that up thru then I was a “beer virgin”. He then poured me another one. Ah, well . . . in for a penny, in for a pound. There was something not unpleasant about sitting together with a fellow soul, sharing words and thoughts (perhaps half-thoughts) while quaffing the fiery nectar without which frat houses would not be frat houses.

I did have sense enough to cut it off after two. And I had further sense to find a chair in the student lounge and let the booze burn off as I stared out the window. I was a little late for dinner at home that evening, but what the heck. My college days were now complete . . . I had actually experienced fraternity life, if only for maybe 40 minutes. Actually, this was a rather tame version of frat life; me and my project team member were the only people around that afternoon, there was no blaring music or crazy guys and young women running about. But there was something after all to the “brotherhood” of two people sitting next to one another, drinking beer, talking slowly, and just letting the time go by. I would do it a lot more of that in the years to come.

I believe that the house that I visited that sunny afternoon is still there, still occupied by a fraternity. I hope that they have mostly avoided the “dark side” that Ms. Flannigan discusses. I hope that they find ways to promote maturity and discipline in their young members, pounding into young mens’ heads the notion that the right to party does not come for free but has to be earned.

And yet . . . I’m also glad that I got a couple of free beers from the Greeks that afternoon, in the twilight of my undergrad days. I’m not sure that had I earned any “right to party”, but that little experience did help me to swallow the bitter realization that after 4 years of hard work, I was worthless to the working world (temporarily, as it turned out – thank goodness!).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:49 pm      

  1. Jim, I am at a total loss to comment on fraternities. First, I am female but never belonged to a sorority either. When I think of the education I’ve had over the years, your post calls my attention to the fact that I never, ever had any desire to seek out sororities, much less members of fraternities, even when I likely could have. Something about the “partying” never interested me; OK, I know I must be somehow lacking in something, but I’ve had what for me was a social life that was just about what I wanted. Why look elsewhere; never occurred to me.

    Neither did I ever have anything to do with members of fraternities either. So, I have no clue about anything concerning either the male or female version of these social groups (if I understand them correctly). But (always the “but”. . .) I do see news programs and other programs on how the “spring break” seems to work. However, I’m not sure those represented in the spring break news pieces are representative of fraternities or sororities. So . . . I still am unable to comment directly on fraternities (and/or sororities).

    A couple of comments on points you mention: First, just because you never heard mention of any reports of “severe injuries or sexual assaults or police visits, back in [your] day” does not mean they did not happen. It likely means (particularly if we talk about sexual assaults) that they happened, but nobody reported them. Reporting of sexual assaults has only recently become an OK thing to do when women are assaulted (i.e., they are reported in the news and other media, say; and/or police take such reports seriously); only in recent years are women more inclined to report them. Previous to that they happened, but nobody said a word unless a woman was killed perhaps. I am not going into that subject more than to say just that.

    I very much like your point about wondering whether the young people of today will end up “permanent children”. I think you may have a point there; in fact, I like the way you put that. It seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to today’s young people – even today’s “older” people, some of them as old as the 30s and 40s.

    I’ve recently had occasion to observe a program called something like (I paraphrase here) “online dating habits of the modern male”. I watched it once or twice (the fascination of the icky as someone I knew long ago would say) and have been appalled at the attitude of the young men on that program. The women are treated totally like objects; and what’s worse, they seem to have no objection to such treatment. I don’t know what appalls me more – the attitude of the men or the attitude of the women. And here I am tempted to say that the words “men” and “women” do not seem appropriate in this case. The program shows young people doing adult things with no adult responsibility whatsoever. Somehow it seems to me society needs to coin a word for this group – those who do adult things but have no adult responsibility and expect to have no adult responsibility regarding what they do. I myself am at a loss for a term for these individuals.

    For a while I tho’t that it was the 20 something group to whom this applied . . . until I found another program version of “finding a mate”. Here were mostly men, but some (literally one or two) women, who were successful financially but socially unable to take any kind of responsibility for getting to know another person for who that individual was; everyone had to either do nothing but look “hot” or had to conform to some unreasonable“list” of qualifications put forward by the person doing the looking for a mate. (Again, I have to admit my fascination for the icky, I suppose.)

    I am not sure this “forever children” aspect of our younger generations can be entirely blamed on parental faults in raising children. For a while I tho’t this problem was one of young people needing to learn more in today’s society to function well as an adult – thus extending the maturation period for the person. But I’m not sure about that any more. I think you may be right: Our society has resulted in individuals who will remain “forever children”, doing adult things but taking no responsibility as adults for what it is they do. Now *this* is something that scares me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 21, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

  2. Jim, I went to university in the mid to late 80s. I too never joined any organisations or groupie things (the Asian equivalents), though I do remember plenty of activity going on around me. I studied music and us music students mostly kept to ourselves, spending hours in the practice rooms at our instruments and when we were not studying, we would eat! But now, I am back in university working on my PhD and living in the main campus in student accommodation, I am once again right in the thick of things without being a part of it. I am in agreement with you about college life now, though. Some things haven’t changed, but some other things have. The marked difference I observe now is the amount of money the students have at their disposal. I don’t remember any of my college mates ever having so much to spend as students here do now (I am in Sydney, Australia). I see international students driving expensive cars, brand new ones too, local students and international students alike hanging out at cafes and food outlets, while I myself cannot afford to eat out on my scholarship stipend, and drinking and partying to well over noise curfew times. Where do they get all that money? I wonder if they are thinking at all about what kinds of employment are these young people going to seek in the future, and what are their chances? Eat, drink and be merry now, while the money is flowing, for later when we graduate, we’ll have to collect welfare? Alarming and disturbing indeed. (And I too shall join the ranks of job seekers very soon, but being well into middle age, I am becoming quite unsettled about my own chances!)

    [Comment from JimG: Hey DJ/SK, great to hear from you!!!! As always. Sounds like you almost had your own little mini-frat with the practice rooms back in university! Must have been great. But seriously, hoping for the best for you once you get out there again in that cold, cruel working world. I’m sure, though, that you’ll find a good place and do some great work, one way or another.]

    Comment by spunkykitty — March 22, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

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