Szuhaj: In Defense of Fraternities

Debunking the unfair assumptions about fraternity life.

by Ben Szuhaj | 10/18/16 12:15am

A friend of mine recently argued that you cannot be both a brother in a fraternity and a good runner. While I’m not here to dissect the scrupulous grind of long-distance running or the singular focus it requires, I raise the topic for a point: There is a particular lifestyle associated with being in a fraternity, and that lifestyle, at least to my friend, is counterproductive to athletic achievement, at least with regards to running. I disagree.

We hear the crazy stories all too often. Fraternity X did this, Fraternity Y did that. Those stories spread with lightning quickness, not necessarily because they are true but because they are exciting and provocative. That’s just the way news works. Rarely do we focus on the times a fraternity did something right. Instead, we shine the spotlight on the “wrongs” to entertain us.

I’m here to shift the focus. The idea that membership in a fraternity requires a specific, inflexible lifestyle is a lie. Membership in a fraternity is less like working a job, where one has a specific, largely unchanging set of duties to perform on top of a hierarchy of superiors to answer to, and more like getting into college. With fraternities, once you make it through a difficult screening process, you are in and free to contribute to the richness and diversity of the community in more ways than one.

This oppportunity to have your voice heard is one of the biggest features of fraternity membership that is overlooked in discussions about fraternities. Even critiques of the Greek system must admit that being in a fraternity gives you the chance to meet new people, make new friends and have new experiences. But what many of those same critiques fail to see is that being in a fraternity not only helps you expand your circle of friends and your interests but also helps you to define more deeply who you are and what you value. Some of my favorite conversations have taken place with people who pursue entirely different interests in their free time than I do, and I take pleasure in explaining my interests to them and hearing about theirs. Being surrounded by people with different interests allows me to understand my own with greater precision and newfound appreciation. For lack of a better analogy, a fish can spend its whole life swimming around without knowing what water is — but take a fish out of water and it’ll notice the difference.

That’s not to say that being in a fraternity is like being a fish out of water. I personally have found the fraternity space to be incredibly warm and hospitable. But should that really be a surprise? After all, we’re talking about the communities that open their doors to campus every weekend and provide a safe social space for free for practically everyone — sorry ’20s — regardless of who a guest is or whom they may know. I struggle to think of another example equal in scale or consistency to the weekly hospitality demonstrated by the Greek system.

At this point, you may have noticed the Keystone-shaped elephant in the room, so I will just come out and say it: You do not have to drink to be part of a fraternity. You get out of fraternity life what you put into it, and more often than not what brothers end up putting into it is a zeal and excitement that is not reliant on alcohol. But that, like much of the rest of what I’ve discussed, simply gets at the larger point: Greek life gets judged unfairly. Not enough is made of the fundraising efforts or the community service while too much is made of the intermittent controversies a few of Dartmouth’s many fraternities have become embroiled in. It’s indicative of our society as whole — a society that has increasingly indulged its desire to be entertained by politicians rather than be responsibly governed by them — that we dramatize the activities of fraternities while simultaneously condemning them.

At its heart, a fraternity is a brotherhood, a tight-knit group of guys who externally may appear to be most commonly linked by the social events they put on — but that is only because the parties are the most visible aspect of fraternity life. Internally, members are linked by something much more meaningful, something difficult to describe but forged in the exchange of life stories, in the long hours spent studying in Novack, in the times when things weren’t going well and you needed a brother and, yes, in the occasional party. Call that something “brotherhood.” Call it friendship. Call it whatever you like, but do not call it detrimental to success. Do not decry it as a hindrance to your goals. At the bare minimum, a fraternity is a support system — one that requires time and energy, yes, but also one that gives back far more than it takes.