Shrouded in secrecy?

by Susan Matthews | 5/12/11 10:00pm

Whether it's passing the Sphinx, catching a glimpse of a strange tattoo on the arm of your upperclassman crush or watching your frat brother disappear on a Monday night only to take over the basement a few hours later with a group of seemingly random people, senior societies have a way of making their presence known on campus despite their ostensibly "secret" status. Some students didn't have a clue they existed until tapping began, while others have attended events held by the non-secret co-ed society Casque and Gauntlet since freshman year. Still others may only be learning about the existence of senior societies right now, as they are reading this issue. Regardless, societies add a weird twist to Dartmouth's unusual social system.

"I'd say [a secret society is] just one of those things that you don't know about until you're in it and once you're in it it's not a big deal," said one '11 male in a co-ed society.

According to the Office of Residential Life's website, approximately 25 percent of eligible upperclassmen are affiliated with a society recognized by the College. This category includes four co-ed organizations, two all-female societies and two all-male societies. The recent creation of two additional all-male societies and one all-female society, along with occasional rumors of a couple recently created co-ed societies, makes it difficult to pin down the exact number of students who are involved in senior societies.

"For a large percentage of campus, they don't have an effect on the social scene at Dartmouth," said a Greek-affiliated male '11 who is also a member of an all-male society.


If this comment rings true, then what is the point of secret societies? Just as there is a diverse array of societies at the College, there are also a variety of reasons that people participate in them. However, students interviewed who are in senior societies agreed that societies are primarily a venue for meeting people that they may not have otherwise met at Dartmouth, particularly late in junior year when "you tend to feel really set in your group of friends," as one '11 male in a co-ed society observed.

Besides saying societies are an opportunity to meet new people, seniors described societies as ranging from "issue-based discussion groups" to "glorified drinking clubs."

"I mean it's given me an outlet to get drunk on Monday nights," one member of a co-ed society remarked when asked what he's gotten out of his society.

An '11 female not in a society agreed, saying, "You get a bunch of people together who already drink together four nights a week and give them tattoos."

Others particularly those in societies seem to disagree about societies' purpose. Many did concede that being in a society does not make or break one's Dartmouth experience.

"Like any other social experience at Dartmouth, [a senior society] can be something really positive if you invest time into the organization," one female '11 in C&G said. "But it's by no means a definitive element of the Dartmouth experience. I think that it can just blend into your life like any other organization does."

Many individuals noted the importance of societies being separate from the Greek system. An affiliated '11 male referred to his co-ed senior society as a "good reason to leave [his] frat."

All-male societies have a strong reputation for providing involved students with superior alumni connections and networking after graduation, several students said.

Societies also offer an opportunity for students to connect on a more intimate level, given their small size, according to one '12 female in a society. Another '11 female called her society her "support network."

"I think that fraternities lend themselves to repeated shallow interactions and societies lend themselves to infrequent and much deeper interactions," one affiliated '11 male in an all-male society said.

Others questioned the depth of friendships that can be forged with fellow society members if the main purpose is simply socializing.

"It's another way to meet people but no more so than any club and activity and with those you're working towards something," an affiliated '12 male who is not in a society said, adding that the expectation societies put on individuals to "build some kind of bond in a very limited amount of time seems like a sham."

Certain societies do unite over shared goals, however, and several societies engage in projects in order to benefit the rest of campus. These projects vary greatly, and are not accepted by everyone as positive, according to several students. One '12 female in a society described these projects as efforts "aimed to help people that no one would want to attach a name to," although she added that she believes those efforts to be important.

Another '11 female said she felt that individuals in societies ought to feel at least some "responsibility to give back to campus."


The extent to which a senior society is actually secret very much depends on its individual culture. A general consensus among upperclassmen is that after the term's tapping process, societies' secrecy becomes much less meaningful.

"I think it's important that [societies] are secret so that underclassmen don't know about them and thus don't feel excluded," an unaffiliated '11 female in a co-ed society said.

Many others argued that the secrecy of them only adds to their allure and to underclassmen's desire to participate.

"Secrets are more fun than [non-secrets]. That's why we keep them," one '13 male stated rather nonchalantly.

One of the most common reasons given for why societies are secret is that their secrecy increases their elitism a nearly universally recognized aspect of any society.

"The whole reason it's there is for the exclusivity," one '13 male said.

It's not hard to determine the membership of certain societies, though it is more difficult to prompt a member of a society to divulge anything else about the organization, such as specific traditions or the physical location of society meetings despite the fact that many have physical plants listed on campus maps according to many individuals who are not in societies.

"I'm convinced that if you want to find out anything on this campus, you can with enough zeal," a '12 male who is affiliated but not in a society said. "[But] I wish people didn't care enough about them [to attempt to find out]."

"I wish they were totally secret," he added. "Not only are you not allowed in their group [but] you're [also] not allowed to know who else is in it."

An '11 unaffiliated female in C&G, however, said she felt people at Dartmouth tend to be relatively open about their society affiliations.

"I think by and large people are pretty low-key about discussing [their society affiliations] and I think that makes it better," she said. "Either students should be open to talk about it or not talk about it at all."

Of course, secrecy tends to add to the allure of societies overall, or perhaps just to the tag of elitism that often is attached to any open conversation about societies.

"By the time you get to senior Spring, nothing's really secret anymore, but presenting [societies] as secret makes them seem cooler and more exclusive," one '11 female, who is affiliated but not in a society said.

That the secret exists to be revealed is a common sentiment.

"No one would ever have a truly secret society because no one would know about it [and] it wouldn't be cool," an affiliated male '11 in a co-ed society said.

A '12 female who is in a society disagreed, however, referencing actions taken by some societies that make it important for them to remain secret.

"There are certain reasons for being secret that don't have to be elitist," she said.

On a campus already highly focused on labels, societies provide yet another way to categorize individuals, according to one '13 female.

"[Societies] are the most naked example of Dartmouth's addiction to validation on this campus," the '12 affiliated male, who is not in a society, said.

One '11 male in a society commented on the unfortunate perception that being in a society says anything about one's personality, and instead said it has more to do with whether you have close friends who are upperclassmen.

"But just because you're in a society it doesn't mean you're a great person and just because you're not, it doesn't mean you're not a great person," one '11 male in a society said.

One affiliated '11 female who is in a society argued that there would be a hierarchy even if societies did not exist.

"It just gives names to the cliques rather than creating them themselves," she said.

The nature of the society tapping process, however, lends some justification to the pervasiveness of society elitism.

"Ninety-five percent of people have the chance to be in a Greek house if they want to be," said an '11 affiliated male in an all-male society, citing that the rush system results in some people being shafted.' "This is an elite thing that's picked arbitrar[ily]."

Several students said that being affiliated with a society is less important than being affiliated with a Greek house because the membership is not as public.

"I'd rather not be in a secret society than have gone through rush publicly and not gotten in," one '11 female said.

An '11 female who is affiliated but not in a society reinforced the idea that being tapped for a society often has little to do with substantial credentials, and instead is purely about who you know.

"It gives a lot of self-worth to individuals who don't really need it," she said.

That societies were founded when Dartmouth was largely an all-male, all-white institution may contribute to the issue of elitism, several students said. One '11 female said that freshman year, she thought all societies were all-male, and even now, she thinks they are representative of Dartmouth's Ivy-League elitism.

"I don't know if it's Ivy League elitism, I think it's old America elitism," said another '11 female who is not in a society.

Many students interviewed emphasized the importance of remembering that individuals affiliated with societies are still in the minority of students.

"It's ridiculous that the other 75 percent [of students] are bitching about [societies], because they're the majority," one affiliated '13 male said.


Since 2005, at least three new societies have been created, which indicates to many students that the approximately 75 percent of students not in societies have taken some steps to lower that percentage.

"I feel like the creation of more societies shows that a lot of Dartmouth students have come to see being in [a society as] a crucial part of your experience," the '11 female member of C&G said. "On the one hand it's great to have more created because [of] inclusivity, but it proves that people are putting a lot of stock in [societies]."

One '11 female who is not in a society said she understood why some individuals felt a desire to create them, since watching classmates go to meetings on Monday nights makes one "feel intentionally excluded."

An '11 male who is also not in a society disagreed, saying he simply hangs out with other friends not associated with societies during that time.

"I feel like the people who are creating societies are the people who thought they were a much bigger deal than they really are," he said.

An affiliated '11 male in a co-ed society said that new societies should not be created because a large part of what students who join them are looking for is "history and tradition."

While many students said they felt it was easier to create a single-sex society, one '13 female said that if more societies were created, she "would expect them to be more co-ed because that's the trend lately integration."

Many students felt that co-ed societies offered a welcome alternative to a social structure that places strong emphasis on single-sex social affiliations, like Greek houses and sports teams.

"I personally think the more co-ed organizations, the better," said one '11 male in an all-male society. "I wish the co-ed Greek system was more mainstream."

Several students commented that the single-sex Greek system thrives because it is already so ingrained in Dartmouth culture, and that in some cases, students aren't mature enough to want to be a part of a co-ed organization until their junior year anyway.

"It would be easier to make more co-ed societies than to change the Greek system," a '11 female who is not in a society said.

One affiliated '11 male in an all-male society said that societies are not enough to fix the skewed gender relations on campus.

"I don't think that societies play a big enough role to do anything like that on this campus," he said. "I think it's too little too late."

An affiliated '13 male pointed out the need for more co-ed social structures outside of the Greek system or senior societies, such as bars.

An unaffiliated '11 female in a C&G agreed, adding that "The real world is co-ed."

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