Being an unsociable dweeb myself, I don't have too much native sympathy for Greek organizations, so it's easy enough for me to accept Flanagan's point that fraternities should be reined in by universities. There is a darkly comic irony in this imperative for places like Wesleyan, which are so progressive in their rhetoric and yet so dependent on the support of a few fraternity alumni that they can't bring themselves to cut ties with the frats that flout all their progressive commitments. Well, too bad for Wesleyan. What I was more interested in, however, was Flanagan's history of fraternities, which suggests that far from some kind of arch-conservative tradition, contemporary Greek life is actually some kind of perfect storm of all the worst elements of 1960s political radicalism fused with '70s/'80s individualist consumerism (something very like David Brooks's bourgeois bohemians as college students):
American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing. The doctrine of in loco parentis was abolished at school after school. Through it all, fraternities—for so long the repositories of the most outrageous behavior—moldered, all but forgotten. Membership fell sharply, fraternity houses slid into increasing states of disrepair, and hundreds of chapters closed.
Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene. The casting of John Belushi was essential to the movie’s influence: no one had greater credibility in the post-’60s youth culture. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable. In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake—and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia—a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian. Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance.I wonder if this is accurate? It would explain why Greek organizations are one of those rare objects of mutual disdain on the left and the right, but which nonetheless manage to evade suppression by a united political front since everyone finds a little shred to sympathize with in them. The left finds that it can't paternalistically condemn their unrestrained drinking and sex (which may, after all, be empowering to some), while the right can't bring itself to deny that freedom of association extends to their activities (for where then would the PC Police not be permitted to intervene?), and so the Greeks carry on. This history would also explain why this piece will find favor with conservatives and liberals alike, but result in no action.
At least one aspect of Flanagan's argument is questionable:
That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity.It's true that colleges used to have narrower aims, but bad behavior of the "fun" variety long precedes the inception of fraternities. Consider, for example, this 1808 letter from a Yale tutor to his friend, detailing the student situation at the college (the "war"):
To be very brief, Mr. __ has been rusticated, (for rolling barrels down my stairs,) for the term of two months. Sophomore __ has received the darts of Dr. Dwight's quiver, until they were exhausted, for cutting bell-ropes and blasphemy, but without any harm; he yet stands unhurt "amidst the war, &c." Freshman __ has been suspended for crimes of almost every name. Many others stand trembling in "fearful looking for of fiery indignation." In short, there appear to be more devils in college at present than were cast out of Mary Magdalene. I have been honored by a broadside at one of my windows, which popped off without ceremony six squares of glass. No matter; you were honored in the same way. I congratulate myself on having obtained the honor. "Fiat justitia ruat coelum," is my maxim. But the devil does not extend his dominion over students alone. The august body of tutors have occasionally acknowledged his power. Last evening they met at the "Luxembourg" to read "Dialogues" for the January exhibition.
As to college affairs, they go on much in the old way. We had many convulsions last quarter, many furious "spasms of infuriated" Sophomores and Freshmen... Mr. Fowler's door almost split to pieces with stones; my windows broken; Freshman __ publicly dismissed; Sophomore __ and __ sent home; T , Sophomore, rusticated three months; and W, Freshman, sent off. Nothing but wars and rumors of wars. This term there appears to be some disposition to enter into a treaty of peace; at least, a cessation of hostilities is agreed upon.The difference here seems only partly that the college may act in loco parentis with respect to these "devils," but more prominently that it could afford to be quite liberal in its expulsions and "rustications." In principle, modern colleges could be so punitive without being simultaneously paternalistic, but they choose not to be.