The evolution of senior societies

by Eve Ahearn | 5/12/11 10:00pm

by Yoon Ji Kim / The Dartmouth

Despite the suspicions of the Aegis' editors, the senior society system at Dartmouth only continued to grow. Currently there are eight senior societies that are officially recognized by the College, with a total participation of approximately 25 percent of the senior class, according to the Office of Residential Life's website.

Although they're generally referred to as "secret societies" information about them is abundant spending an afternoon in Rauner will provide you with more than enough material to satisfy your curiosity. So how and why though did these organizations evolve?

"In the late 19th century Americans were very much attracted to some combination of [the] great man theory of history and organizations that recognized what they saw as extraordinary competence," retired history professor Jere Daniell '55 said. "It had to do with the Carnegies [and] with an aversion to race and ethnicity. These groups of people felt that they were superior, fundamentally, to recent immigrants. They wanted organizations that recognized that."

Daniell has researched the senior society system at Dartmouth for articles such as the one he wrote for the 100th anniversary of his senior society, C&G. Daniell has been recognized as a special lecturer in New Hampshire history by the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth.

The combination of the spectacular business success of individual men such as Andrew Carnegie during the Industrial Revolution and a wave of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century led to the creation of exclusive associations across the United States. The Elks fraternal order, for instance, was founded in 1868. The early senior societies at Dartmouth, however, modeled themselves not after national fraternal orders but after the societies at a fellow college, Yale.

"The first of the senior societies began at Yale. We still hear about them. There is no doubt but that Dartmouth seniors wanted to copy those," Daniell said.

In societies' own reports of their founding there is no reference to other colleges, just the desire for structures to create and maintain strong friendships.

Dragon's newsletter from 1923 described its creation simply:

"On a Saturday night in May, twenty-five years ago, a group of six men gathered in a dormitory room to enjoy a dinner of turkey and cider. The dinner and meeting were so enjoyable that the group decided to make this a weekly event."

Apparently those six men were not the only who enjoyed weekly meetings, because the formation of many other senior societies soon followed. C&G was founded only one year after Sphinx, and Dragon followed 12 years later in 1898.

There were many other societies that fell by the wayside. Tiger, for instance, lasted only from 1892 to 1894, although there are rumors of a present-day society by the same name. In the apparently hallowed tradition of animal names, a group of students founded Turtle, a junior society, in 1902. That group died out after 10 years. The idea of a junior society wasn't unusual at the time Theta Nu Epsilon, a society for sophomores, also lasted 10 years, from 1893 to 1903.

After the first period of senior society foundings in the 1880s and 1890s, a second wave followed in the 1920s and then a third round following co-education.

The 1920s were the heyday of all kinds of organizations at Dartmouth. In 1927, for instance, there were 27 fraternities on campus and 13 senior societies. Imagine the social dynamics of Dartmouth with a full 10 more frats than we have now around 90 percent of the student body was Greek at the time. At that time, many of the senior societies took on a more functional role the Round Robin society for instance, was focused on theater, while the Mathematical society did precisely what you would expect a group with that name to do.

The late 1960s were a time of great anti-institutional attitude at Dartmouth and all across America, and senior societies were no exception. Palaeopitus, which was at that time a publicly-elected senior society, had students run for the position on the platform of dismantling Palaeopitus itself.

In the two decades following co-education, students created two female-only senior societies and several co-ed ones. However, the attitude of the late '60s and early '70s permanently altered campus perspective towards senior societies.

In the 1920s the "peak" of senior societies the Aegis referred to the groups as "honorary societies." It was an honor to be involved. That term disappeared from our yearbook after 1971, followed by subsequent problems of categorization. The 1981 Aegis, for instance, inexplicably lists Foley House, an affinity program, alongside Fire and Skoal, C&G, Cobra, Sphinx and Dragon.

In recent years, the ideal of achievement is not personal honor, but demonstrated commitment to the College community. The 2009 Aegis listed senior societies, along with fraternities and sororities, under the heading of "community service."

While Palaeopitus is an atypical senior society in almost all ways it operates under the office of the Dean of the College instead of the Office of Residential Life, it has an open membership and an open application process and its members can (and do) belong to other senior societies it exemplifies an interesting trend in the perception of the purpose of the senior society system.

"[Palaeopitus] used to be a really elitist organization they used to wear white sailor suits around campus to show that they were in it. Now the goal is to be helpful for the student body, as opposed to being a self-congratulatory organization," Palaeop moderator Meera Krishna '11 said.

Even if you haven't been to any Palaeop-organized events, you probably have attended one organized by a senior society, even if you didn't realize it at the time. Most societies maintain a secret membership, but C&G is one notable exception. While C&G doesn't publish their membership list, they don't attempt to hide it, either.

"I think it makes it a lot easier to reach out to people who aren't in C&G," C&G president Connie Hu '11 said.

C&G is also an exception to the norm as it has a residential house a building most people recognize due to its location on Main Street, just across the street from Collis.

"Since the house is so central we often have open-to-campus events or lecture events that [are] related to what C&Gs are really involved in," Hu said.

Other societies, such as Fire and Skoal, began with an open membership and only later became secret.

The system has continued to evolve, although an officially recognized senior society has not been founded since Abaris' creation in 1996.

ORL helps to monitor the administration of senior societies anyone who has seen the (simply put) hilarious ad on tapping that ORL publishes in The Dartmouth every year might have gotten that idea already. In particular, ORL helps manage the tapping process and is responsible for processing requests to recognize any potential new society.

"[The process] would be really similar to our recognition process for Greek letter organizations," current Director of Greek Letter Organizations and Societies Kristi Clemens said.

"Generally what would happen would be a student or a group of students would approach us and tell us about the idea that they had of what kind of society they're looking to put together. We have some bylaws that talk about putting together a governance structure, how they'll recruit, how they'll be financially viable."

So if the senior society system at Dartmouth is not what you would like it to be, get proactive.

"If there's a need, or an aspect of our community students think is missing, we're happy to entertain suggestions or any ideas for new organizations," Clemens said.