9.1.06

VERY JUNIOR HIGH. Journalist Alexandra Robbins attempted to do some ethnography among the sororities. The result is Pledged, an impromptu Book Review No. 2 using the time between clearing security in Boston and landing in Chicago to do the reading. (I was in the usual end-of-convention convex combination of juiced on caffeine and overtired that precluded either sleeping the trip away or doing some more serious work.) As is often the case in a popular investigation (and still too often in a scholarly investigation), a small sample of anecdotes (possibly combed for the most titillating outliers) do not make for robust research. Ms Robbins did have the problems of having to pretend to be younger and working around an official proscription by the Greek organizations, which she characterized as fearful of hatchet-job journalism. Given what she reported, those organizations do indeed have much to be fearful of.

I'll start with some general observations Ms Robbins makes about the ambiguous role the Greek system plays in university life.
That this kind of exclusivity is collegiately condoned makes the situation all the more intriguing: sororities themselves are cliques. Envision taking the group of girls in high school who bond and exclude and formally recognizing their belonging to one group and not to another by assigning them letters, colors, and mascots. The blondes, the super-thin, the rich, the promiscuous, and the girls who smoke marijuana are separated and recognized as distinctive, nonoverlapping groups. Once a girl is accepted into one of the groups, she can never affiliate with another. Each group is allotted [space] (decorated in their colors) from which they can observe the other groups. They are given secret rituals and an oath swearing allegiance to one another.
Such validation by the university might contribute to the "cooperation in the prolonged immaturity of our students" Mark Bauerlein of Emory deplores, as well as to the proliferation of "well-dressed dodos" Kimberly of Number 2 Pencil anticipates. That's not, however, where Ms Robbins is taking us. We will learn a little bit about the secret rituals. Many of these involve the recruiting and pledging of members and the subsequent pair-bonding of members. Much of what Ms Robbins reports gives the impression of Freemasonry without the gravitas. She makes several references to a publication called the Norman Shield of Kappa Delta (there's what the organization calls a "Norman Cross" on its arms; the elegance of the Square and Compass it hasn't) as well as to the initiation rituals of this organization, which allow members to pass through degrees. (To be fair, some critics of the Freemasons have suggested that the proliferation of degrees are a way for local lodges to make money. Keeping the house solvent matters to the young ladies Ms Robbins visits.)

The bonding and exclusion is apparently important. Pledged opens and closes with Southern Methodist's Bid Day, which gives the impression of medicine's Match Day without the gravitas, although to receive a bid from an unanticipated house, or from no house at all, is The. End. Of. The. World. to some so treated, as well as to their parents. (Southern Methodist's erstwhile Phantom Professor had several books, including Pledged, on her Summer Stack. Reviews and impressions, please.) More seriously, the exclusion continues to manifest itself as racial segregation along Southern Greek Rows where such affiliations are evidently more important to students and historically white houses serve the same function the all-Pullman Panama Limited allegedly did for the Illinois Central Railroad, of enabling the universities to comply with civil rights laws while circumventing them. (The City of New Orleans of the era was a fast all-coach train that would connect Chicago to New Orleans in 19 mostly daylight hours. Theodore White's Making of the President 1960 notes its role in the black migration to Chicago.)

The use of the term "nonoverlapping" in the same sentence with the category "promiscuous" misleads. That's the central focus of Pledged. I've sometimes suspected that Thomas Frank wrote What's the Matter with Kansas, which I've remarked on more substantively here, here, and here, in part as payback to people he thought were friends who excluded him from the Greek-system sexual cartel that dominated social life in Lawrence. Better to opt out of that cartel. If the anecdotes of Pledged are representative (small samples generally aren't) the neuroses and follies of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives are simply party life in the rabbit culture relocated to upscale quarters. At gatherings of the national Greek organizations, speakers seek to dispel the image of the ladies as on the one hand "sorostitutes and fraterniture" and on the other hand "dramatic" and "high maintenance" but on the other hand the guys are quite happy to ply the gals with their liquor and the gals quite happy to drink it, even if it is on occasion a Mickey Finn (to use the language of a more hard-boiled era.) But the right house has to be providing the drinks and the companionship. And yes, people get hurt. Often.

Pledged tells us very little about what goes on in class (other than many are missed for house events; no doubt some are cut for hangovers.) One of the students has a fling with a professor in a course she is finishing. Apart from that, Ms Robbins misses an opportunity to rebut some spin from the national organizations about members of Greek-letter organizations having higher graduation rates. (That's easy. Even a Yale soccer player should be able to follow this, although people who should know better don't. Fraternity and sorority membership is a proxy for higher family income. Students with more family resources are more likely to finish. Well-known state universities reserve residence hall space for state residents. Well-to do parents that take advantage of lower out-of-state tuitions than prevail at the most famous private universities, such as the parents of Coasties, provide a population with lots of resources to keep those houses solvent, as well as to buy the PradaGucciChanel with designer sunglasses and Uggs the membership committee expects the newest litter of rabbits to wear.)

How are things different here? Northern Illinois does not cater to as rich a population. Although many people perceive the social life as dominated by the Greek system, our fraternity and sorority membership as a share of the student body looks more like Chicago's than like Northwestern's or Illinois-Urbana's. We also have rules. (I recognize the name of one of the student authors of this document and will vouch for that person's character.)

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