When hazing scandals occur on college campuses, there typically seems to be a collective public reckoning over how fraternities have sunk so low.
But in reality, hazing is not a recent phenomenon.
That topic is explored in John Hechinger’s newly released “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” which explains fraternity hazing has roots in ancient Greece and medieval Europe, and was imported to America during the colonial period.
In fact, by the end of the American Civil War, “returning soldiers brought military-style hazing to college campuses … the pledge period soon grew to weeks or months, devolving into the orgy of abuse so familiar today,” Hechinger wrote. “Early hazers doled out beatings, force-fed vile substance, and staged kidnappings.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Stanford University fraternities were stripping pledges nude and and submerging them until they nearly drowned, Dartmouth’s Delta Kappa Epsilon was branding its pledges, and the term “Hell Week” had come into existence.
But perhaps the most horrifying stories about hazing today are those that result in the death of a pledge. Such incidents shock the collective consciousness of college communities.
Still, hazing deaths are not new phenomena. One of the first high-profile deaths occurred in 1873 when a Kappa Alpha Society pledge at Cornell University was blindfolded in the countryside and left to find his way home in the dark. On his way, he fell off of a cliff and died.
Despite the long history of fraternity abuses, Hechinger doesn’t conclude with a call to ban Greek organisations from college campuses. He notes that it’s likely not even a viable option on public universities as there would be First Amendment issues related to the freedom of association.
Instead, he points to visibility and public pressure as external forces that help keep fraternities accountable. And he calls on fraternities themselves to be accountable and rethink their typical power structures, offering options like admitting women, forming partnerships between historically white and black fraternities, or raising academic requirements.
“Individual fraternities could experiment with new approaches, bringing the kind of fresh energy that animated the movement at the beginning,” Hechinger wrote.
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