'The Company He Keeps'

Although he isn't a fraternity brother, Nicholas L. Syrett has immersed himself in the world of Greek history. Syrett, an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, is interested in much more than pledging and bonding. His new book is The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (University of North Carolina Press).

February 13, 2009

Although he isn't a fraternity brother, Nicholas L. Syrett has immersed himself in the world of Greek history. Syrett, an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, is interested in much more than pledging and bonding. His new book is The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (University of North Carolina Press). Through fraternities, he writes about definitions of masculinity, evolving ideas about gender, and changes in the way college men identified themselves. Using fraternity records (campus and national), diaries, interviews, and a variety of other sources, Syrett offers a history that is at times sympathetic and at other times critical. He responded via e-mail to questions about his book.

Q: You didn't enter this project as a fraternity brother or much experience with fraternities. What drew you to the topic? What was your sense about fraternities as you started off?

A: I was interested in writing about the history of masculinity and no one had written all that much on the history of fraternities. In that sense, as organizations with plenty of material in the archives, fraternities were a historian’s dream and a great case study. As you note, however, I had very little experience with fraternities myself. I attended a college that had a very marginal Greek scene and so most of what I knew — as may be the case for most of us — came from media reports on fraternity antics that did not paint them in the most flattering light. In part I was interested in where such behavior came from and just how representative it was of fraternities more generally.

Q: How did the Greek world view your research when you conducted interviews, given that you aren't a fraternity brother?

A: I’m not really sure, in large part because almost all the fraternity brothers I dealt with were dead, some of them long ago. As a historian my research was archival and I do know that two or three fraternities denied me access to their institutional archives, probably because I was not a brother. That said, two different fraternities gave me permission to include illustrations from their collections in the book. My one real experience with fraternity members who objected to my research came at an academic conference where one or two of the people in the audience insinuated that those of us who were not members were not qualified to write this history. What I think they missed, however, was that this is history; no historian writes about him or herself. Historians of slavery were not slaves; historians of the American Revolution were not present for major battles. In my mind this is little different.

Q: The book uses fraternities as a way to look at how college men defined their masculinity and gender. How does this relate to the origins of fraternities in the United States? What were the perceived needs that sent men into Greek systems?

A: One of the primary functions that fraternities served for their earliest members in the second quarter of the 19th century was an assertion of independence. By our standards antebellum college students were remarkably regimented and regulated. Fraternities were outlawed at almost all colleges and joining one was both a way of defying an authoritarian faculty that treated college students as if they were still children as well as a way for youthful men to claim a manly independence through breaking the rules, choosing their own friends, and asserting some form of control over their lives. At the time fraternities also placed a real premium on academic, forensic, and literary talent; it was one of the ways that men in fraternities (and others on campus) defined their manliness. Finally, and not insignificantly, at a time when colleges were flooded with pious men training for the ministry, most fraternities attracted those men who were not especially pious; joining a fraternity was a way of drawing distinctions between different kinds of students.

Q: The subtitle of your book notes that this work is about white fraternities, and your book says that it is about white, Protestant fraternities. How is exclusion important to the study of fraternities? Do you think black, Jewish, Catholic and other fraternities have significantly different experiences with gender and identity?

A: Exclusion is remarkably important, in much the same way that exclusion is important to any group that sets standards for membership. Phi Beta Kappa, for instance, would cease to be an honor if absolutely anyone were admitted. In the case of fraternities, my argument is that exclusion is not just a means to keep fraternities popular and envied (though it certainly can be that), but also a way for these organizations to define their membership as masculine, that masculinity structured not just by race and religion and ethnicity, but also by class status as well.

In terms of black, Jewish, and Catholic fraternities, I am not an expert, but my suspicion is that they are not wholly dissimilar, and that certainly they serve as a means for the men who join them to define their masculinity through membership. Evidence indicates that there are some differences, however, in the way that these fraternities operate. Whereas traditionally white fraternities have tended to employ humiliation and nudity in their initiation rituals, observers of black fraternities point to much higher rates of violence in initiations. This, of course, can clearly be read in gendered terms as well.

Q: Gay issues come up frequently in the book -- gay fraternity members, straight fraternity members afraid of looking gay, homoerotic rituals, a very prominent (closeted) gay leader of the fraternity movement at a time before gay rights, homophobic incidents in an era of gay rights, etc. What do you make of the way fraternities and sexual orientation -- historically and today?

A: A complicated question. Sexual orientation played very little role until the late 19th and early 20th century, when homosexuality itself became recognized as a sexual orientation that could be ascribed to certain people, people who were different from another category of people called heterosexuals. It began to play a role then – and continues to do so now – because fraternities are groups of single men who live together, which can look suspicious, particularly when those groups of men select other men to join based in part upon physical appearance, when they participate in nude hazing rituals with each other, and when they foster a friendship that appears remarkably affectionate to outsiders. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, fraternity men are very concerned with demonstrating their masculinity because it brings them prestige.

So long as masculinity is understood as being the antithesis of homosexuality for many people, fraternity men will continue to insist upon their heterosexuality and thus their masculinity. One way to do this is through homophobia: ostracizing and mocking those they believe are gay. All of this is even further complicated by the large numbers of gay or proto-gay men who join fraternities precisely because they believe that the organizations might help them overcome their homosexuality, or perhaps because they believe that membership will increase their chances of sex with the other men who are brothers. Whatever the reasons for joining, there is no doubt that many gay men tell stories of having sex with their fraternity brothers, compounding the pressure upon those fraternity men who fear being seen as homosexual when they are no such thing. This also leads to homophobia.

Q: Incidents of fraternities abusing women are recounted throughout your book. Do you think the fraternity concept makes this inevitable, or do you see possibilities for fraternities that treat women with respect?

A: I do not believe it is inevitable, no, in large part because I do not believe that most forms of behavior are inevitable for anyone. If anything, in researching this book I have discovered that earlier incarnations of fraternities did not abuse women. There is little truth, in other words, to the notion that “boys will be boys.” I do think, however, that any time groups of men organize themselves into exclusive groups that do not allow women in on equal terms, it’s not going to lead to respect for women. This is especially so when these men prize sexual success with women as a key part of their identity, as many fraternities do.

The pressure that mounts in such an organization, as a result of the competition amongst men, means that it is likely that women may be abused. That said, I have certainly heard of contemporary fraternities that work very hard to inculcate a sense of respect for women as equals. If more fraternities worked more self-consciously to address this problem, I think there could be real progress. The ultimate solution, however, would be if fraternities actually admitted women as members, though I think it unlikely that most fraternities would be enthusiastic about such a proposition. The degree to which a fraternity’s membership cannot conceive of women being admitted as members probably has much to tell us about the members’ attitudes toward women more generally.

Q: As you look at fraternities today, what do you see as their main contributions and main flaws? Do their pluses outweigh their negatives?

A: The most obvious contribution is that the men who join them enjoy the camaraderie that they offer. This is particularly important for students who attend large and impersonal schools and might not know anyone when they arrive. Other benefits include having a place to live as well as a place to throw parties. In terms of contributions that colleges and universities enjoy, some fraternities house substantial percentages of schools’ students and they also provide a social life for many students such that schools themselves are not responsible for this aspect of their students’ extracurricular lives.

The flaws are that they often encourage social snobbery; they can divide students into cliques and factions; and their exclusivity leads to disappointment on the part of those not asked to join. Ample evidence also demonstrates that fraternity members are involved in more binge drinking, hazing mishaps (some of which lead to serious injury and death), and sexual assault than most of their peers. When and if fraternities avoid these flaws (and some assuredly do), then it seems to me that the benefits for their members make them benign enough as to be unobjectionable. That said, when fraternities behave in ways that adversely affect the educational environment for other students, their usefulness for their own membership should not outweigh the greater good of the college or university.


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