Ben Novak on The Glory Days of the Fraternity System

Dr. Ben Novak joins Andy Nash in a discussion on what principles made the fraternity system so memorable and so culturally important in the history of higher education.

Key Take-Aways

  • 3:40 – The role of a fraternity: to “polish and form” students (1 min)
  • 5:45 – Many times colleges outlawed them for fear of organized power. (1 min)
  • 8:00 – Animal House effectively destroyed fraternities as an institution. (1 min)
  • 9:54 – Fraternities weren’t “elitist;” majority of students joined. (2 mins)
  • 12:15 – Before collapse, fraternities helped the lower classes move to the top. (1 min)
  • 14:15 – The purpose of parties was to show you had social grace. (30 secs)

Andy’s Show Notes

The Golden Age of College Fraternities: Forgotten history or a way for the future?

Do we really need to ask why a young college-aged male joins a college fraternity? Of course not. What no one asks is why one joined a fraternity in the past.

In our most recent interview with Dr. Ben Novak, alumnus and former professor and trustee of Penn state, he revealed a very different kind of fraternity, and attitude that went along with it.

As Dr. Novak concedes, a college fraternity, as any institution, will be to a considerable degree, a reflection of the society that populates it. However, he argues that a fraternity was formed and joined by young men during its heyday for the purpose of becoming polished and formed into gentlemen, who–at land-grant colleges such as Penn State, which attracted students from the farms and poorer classes unlike east-coast Ivy League universities such as Harvard–could then move up the social ladder.

But isn’t that why people went to college, to get the knowledge and education and develop the skills necessary to be able to climb the economic ladder? What does that have to do with fraternities or social clubs of any kind?

In the latter half of the 19th century and for the better part of the first half of the 20th, knowledge and certification were not the sole qualifications sought by society. Society desired, and often demanded, dignity and class and a semblance of character that hinted to one’s trustworthiness and integrity. Although far less formal and less rigid than some kind of finishing school, college fraternities were places where one was compelled to learn and hone social graces and classiness through their customs, rituals, formal and semi-formal activities, as well as through their honor codes and the strong bonds of loyalty they formed. And often they held one another to such standards and expectations since the actions of one or a few reflected upon the group as a whole. Consequently fraternities played a vital experiential role outside of the university classroom in shaping one’s character. Virtue was not merely some aspect of the epics of Greco-Roman classics one studied in the humanities. It was something they had to apply in their daily lives to truly be the well-rounded and well-formed men of honor. The Penn State Alma Mater reads: May no act of ours bring shame, To one heart that loves thy name. May our lives but swell thy fame, Dear old State, dear old State.

With much of society changing with the counter-cultural 1960′s and ’70′s, fraternities were still a reflection of the society from which their members came. The difference was that the values for why fraternities conducted themselves the way they did in the past had become far less important, or even non-existent. Dr. Novak argues that the 1978 movie Animal House (whose storyline was set in the early 1960′s), by advancing the narrative that the old guard of the fraternities were stodgy, pretentious and elitist, emboldened future generations in adopting the irreverent John Belushi attitude of being as outlandish and outrageous as possible, paying no regard to any sense of dignity or self-respect at all. Over the course of a few decades, there were real “animal house” fraternities at almost every school, to some varying degree.

To what extent the movie Animal House was the cause, or merely the symbolic icon that gave the debaucherization of fraternities its form or rallying cry, can be eternally debated. What is clear is that over the last three to four decades problem-child fraternities have plagued countless residential colleges and universities across the country seeing everything from sexual assaults and rapes to death from alcohol poisoning and becoming dens of illicit drug use–leading to university and police crack-downs, liability lawsuits, decolonizations, etc. Dr. Novak has frequently pointed out that the local fraternity district at Penn State, one of the largest in the country, at one time was one of the safest places in town one could walk through at night. In over the last 30 years, the opposite was sadly often the case.

But weren’t young people of any past generation, away from their parents at school, always looking to party and have a blast? Dr. Novak argues that fraternities of the past had everything from house mothers to self-imposed regulations and curfews, customs, etiquette, honor codes, fellowship, and women were typically not permitted above the first floor of a house. Parties were occasions where they showcased their social graces rather than any disregard for them. And when problems arose or tempers flared, they often surrendered themselves to one another in true spirit of brotherhood. The college fraternity, in its “golden age”, embodied a sense of dignity and honor and respect, the cultivation and development of which was its very purpose. As the Penn state Alma Mater says: When we stood at childhood’s gate (changed from boyhood’s gate), Shapeless in the hands of fate, Thou didst mold us, dear old State. One of the ways Penn State, and countless other schools accomplished this was with their proud and rich student-founded tradition of fraternities.

So if much of what fraternities stood for has dissolved over time, why do students still join them today? Aside from the partying and social pursuits, they’ll say leadership. And to be fair, while animal houses have come and gone, many fraternities today in fact do a good a job in developing leadership. But with modern culture having changed so drastically, and our institutions including fraternities along with it, we can only wonder as to the effectiveness, and thereby very purpose of fraternities today.

While some may dismiss the “golden age” thesis as myth, the bigger question is can fraternities harken toward, if not back to, the positive aspects and ideals that Dr. Novak alludes to. Find out in our interview on Inside Academia.

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