Friday, August 21, 2009

Anti-Hellenisticism, or the crusade against fraternities and sororities

I never joined a fraternity (or a sorority, for that matter). And not that anyone asked, but one of my reasons was that I believed they were exclusive clubs that denied individuality and were merely institutions where members paid for the privilege of having friends, und so weiter, et cetera.

Maybe much of this is probably true of how fraternities and sororities operate, although I really don't know. But the truth is, all groups of friends I have been involved with have been exclusionary in some respects.

There are the obvious exclusions one would hope to find in any circle of friends: none of my groups of friends would tolerate first degree murderers or neo-Nazis (although at least one of my circles of friends tolerates Trotskyists and Maoists--the former claim there should be a revolution in which they admit innocent people shall die and the latter apologize for and gainsay the mass murders of the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Great Cultural Revolution").

There are the not so obvious exclusions. My group of graduate student friends (in history) would probably tolerate a Republican, but would roll their eyes at him or her. Another circle of friends, who I knew growing up and are now probably only distant acquantences, would probably do the same for a committed Democrat.

None of my circles of friends explicitly has a dues paying requirement, a requirement that I understand is de rigueur for most frats and sorors. Yet for the most part, most of these circles meet an understanding that we should all have a minimum level of wealth or, oftener, are in a certain social class that has access to social and cultural capital (i.e., most of us have a lot of formal education).

Another criticism lobbed at the Greek system is that its components are centers of privilege. That was, apparently, one reason that Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton before he was president of the U.S., railed so much against fraternities. Yet, I must confess that a good number of the non-drudgery jobs I've had I have received from tips and informal recommendations from friends. I have taken all these jobs seriously and have been very grateful for them and (I hope) do them competently. Still, I would not have gotten a lot of these jobs without the opportunities offered by my social network.

I'm not trying to defend the Greek system. I am just really saying 2 things:

1. I don't know enough about it to criticize it intelligently.

2. I (and others) should pause before I self-righteously inveigh against them. None of is purer than Caesar's wife.

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