Fraternities, sororities and football, along with other outsized athletic programs, have decimated most major American universities. Scholarship, inquiry, self-criticism, moral autonomy and a search for artistic and esoteric forms of expression—in short, the world of ethics, creativity and ideas—are shouted down by the drunken chants of fans in huge stadiums, the pathetic demands of rich alumni for national championships, and the elitism, racism and rigid definition of gender roles of Greek organizations. These hypermasculine systems perpetuate a culture of conformity and intolerance. They have inverted the traditional values of scholarship to turn four years of college into a mindless quest for collective euphoria and athletic dominance.
There is probably no more inhospitable place to be an intellectual, or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community, than on the campuses of the Big Ten Conference colleges, although the poison of this bizarre American obsession has infected innumerable schools. These environments are distinctly corporate. To get ahead one must get along. The student is implicitly told his or her self-worth and fulfillment are found in crowds, in mass emotions, rather than individual transcendence. Those who do not pay deference to the celebration of force, wealth and power become freaks. It is a war on knowledge in the name of knowledge.
“Knowledge,” as C. Wright Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” “is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.”
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There are few university presidents or faculty members willing to fight back. Most presidents are overcompensated fundraisers licking the boots of every millionaire who arrives on campus. They are like court eunuchs. They cater to the demands of the hedge fund managers and financial speculators on their trustee boards, half of whom should be in jail, and most of whom revel in this collective self-worship. And they do not cross the football coach, who not only earns more than they do but has much more power on the campus.
One of the last great university presidents was James O. Freedman of Dartmouth. His integrity and courage were matched by his deep and abiding love of learning. He arrived in Hanover, N.H., determined to do battle with Dartmouth’s entrenched culture of elitism, white male entitlement, fraternities and football. He did not have an easy tenure. The Dartmouth Review published a cover article that depicted Freedman, who was Jewish, as Hitler and wrote that he was orchestrating the “final solution” to traditional conservatism at Dartmouth.
Freedman had told the college in his inaugural address:
We must strengthen our attraction for those singular students whose greatest pleasures may come not from the camaraderie of classmates but from the lonely acts of writing poetry or mastering the cello or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus. We must make Dartmouth a hospitable environment for students who march “to a different drummer”—for those creative loners and daring dreamers whose commitment to the intellectual and artistic life is so compelling that they appreciate, as Prospero reminded Shakespeare’s audiences, that for certain persons a library is “dukedom large enough.”
But Freedman’s imprint, once he departed, faded. Fraternity and football culture reasserted itself at Dartmouth. A former Dartmouth fraternity member, Andrew Lohse, who is profiled in an April article in Rolling Stone, was ostracized not only by the students but the university administration for his public exposure of hazing and abuse.
“I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks … among other abuses,” he wrote in the magazine. He accused Dartmouth’s 17 fraternities, 11 sororities and three coed houses, to which roughly half of the student body belongs, of perpetuating a culture of “pervasive hazing, substance abuse and sexual assault,” as well as an “intoxicating nihilism” that dominates campus social life. “One of the things I’ve learned at Dartmouth—one thing that sets a psychological precedent for many Dartmouth men—is that good people can do awful things to one another for absolutely no reason,” he said. “Fraternity life is at the core of the college’s human and cultural dysfunctions.”
Harassment and physical violence by athletic teams and Greek organizations on American campuses is real. They use these threats to keep critics cowed and their entitlement secure. Any attack mounted against football programs or Greek organizations becomes an attack against the group identity that gives followers their sense of prestige and empowerment. And all those who question or criticize these organizations are treated as the enemy. When the Rev. William Sloan Coffin led the fight to shut down fraternities at Williams College, someone fired a shot through the window of his house. Vicky Triponey, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, became a nonperson when she attempted to discipline half a dozen football players who had been involved in a brawl in which several students were injured and one was beaten unconscious. Football coach Joe Paterno acidly referred to her in a radio interview as “that lady in Old Main” (the central administration building) who couldn’t possibly know how to handle students because “she didn’t have kids.” The coach angrily told Triponey that his players would not cooperate with any investigation because they would not “rat” on each other. Penn State President Graham Spanier asked her pointedly if she really embraced “the Penn State way.” Triponey received threatening phone calls. She was denounced on student message boards. Her house was vandalized. A “for sale” sign was put up in her front yard. She was no longer invited to university events, fellow faculty and administrative staff avoided her, and people turned their backs on her in the supermarket. Spanier successfully pressured her to resign in 2007. Her husband found work at the University of South Carolina’s medical school in Charleston, and the couple moved.
Hazing, comradeship and complicity in sexual abuse, including rape, make up the glue that holds campus sports teams and fraternity houses together. The National Study of Student Hazing reports that 73 percent of U.S. fraternities and sororities haze. Since 1970, at least one student has died each year from hazing. Eighty-two percent of these deaths have resulted from alcohol poisoning. Hazing weeds out those with enough self-esteem and independence to stand up to the hierarchy. It ensures conformity and obedience. These groups are, in essence, self-selected. Those who have the fortitude and courage to oppose their own public humiliation and the public humiliation perpetuated with each new cycle of recruits or pledges leave. Those who remain conform. Athletic recruiting parties, like fraternity parties, at schools across the country are plagued by gang rapes and sexual assaults. And these crimes, known by all in the fraternity or on the team, are met, in locker rooms and Greek houses, with the culture of silence, mocking the stated missions of the schools.
Bernard Lefkowitz captured the sickness of this culture in his book “Our Guys.” Lefkowitz wrote about a group of high school athletes in Glen Ridge, N.J., who in 1989 lured a 17-year-old developmentally disabled girl to a basement. The boys sexually abused her with a broomstick and a baseball bat. And when the assault became public, the town rallied, as at Penn State, not around the victim, but “our guys.” Athletic prowess was, as we saw at Penn State, glorified above human decency, compassion, respect and the law. But this is true at most schools. As long as athletes perform they are untouchable.
The root of the problem is the culture of big-time athletics and Greek life. And it will not be addressed through NCAA sanctions or the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State. It will end only when fraternities, sororities and football—along with other professional sports programs masquerading as college athletics—are banished from colleges and universities. These athletes, in the end, also are used. They are unpaid performers, brought to the campus solely for their athletic prowess, who make millions for their schools and their coaches. If you have a son or daughter—especially a daughter—who wants to get an education, look for a school that has banished these organizations.
The corporate world sees football players, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters as prime recruits. They have been conditioned to join the team, to surrender moral autonomy, to accept and carry out acts of personal humiliation, to treat with contempt those who oppose them or who are different, to define their life by an infantile narcissism centered on greed and self-promotion and to remain silent about crimes they witness or take part in. It is the very ethic of corporations.
The ruling elite sees in Greek organizations and football programs the training ground for the amoral class of speculators, bankers and corporatists who pillage the country. Henry “Hank” Paulson, who as secretary of the treasury orchestrated a government payout of more than $12.9 billion to save AIG and Goldman Sachs (where he had been the chairman and chief executive officer), was a member of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and an offensive lineman at Dartmouth. The billionaire hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, who chairs Dartmouth’s board of trustees, was, as Rolling Stone points out, in Psi Upsilon. Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE, was a Phi Delt at Dartmouth, as were other trustees including Morgan Stanley senior adviser R. Bradford Evans, billionaire oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and venture capitalist William W. Helman IV. And that is just Dartmouth.
Hazing is also integral to the military, where suicide—including the recent suicide of a Chinese-American soldier, Pvt. Danny Chen, in Afghanistan—is often the result. It is almost impossible to escape your tormentors in the military. Suicide becomes for many the only exit. Chen, who was the sole Asian-American in his unit, endured sandbags being tied to his arms by fellow soldiers. Rocks and water bottles were thrown at him. He was forced to speak Chinese instead of English. And he was taunted with the slurs “gook,” “slant,” “chink” and “egg roll.” Eight soldiers are being court-martialed in his death. A huge percentage of the suicides in the military happen because of hazing. Most of these cases are never investigated. The bodies are just shipped home.
Corporate culture, which now dominates higher education, shares the predatory culture of the military. These cultures are about subsuming the self into the herd. They are about the acquiring of technical, vocational skills to serve the system. And with the increasing budget cuts, and more craven obsequiousness to corporate donors, it will only get worse. These forces of conformity are hostile to the humanities that teach students to question assumptions and structures, that prod them to seek a life of meaning and an ethical code that challenges the blind, utilitarian obedience to power and profit that corporations and the military instill. We will, I fear, continue to turn out the intellectually stunted and maimed, those who know school football records but no philosophy, drama, art, music, theology, literature or history. The goal of an education is not, in the end, to tell students what to think but to teach them how to think.
College and university administrators defund libraries, close foreign language and classics departments and invest staggering sums in gargantuan sports arenas and athletic programs. And the only time the student body protests or riots is when, as at Penn State, something unpleasant happens to the beloved football coach. Pity the student who goes there to learn. The faculty and administration will not help them; they are complicit or intimidated.
William Carlos Williams, author of the poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” knew there was more to life than careers, personal empowerment, the quest for prestige, the roar of the crowd and networking. But many find this out too late. And those attending schools like Penn State will probably never find out at all. Williams wrote:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.