U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fraternities and History

This past week, talk at the University of Oklahoma was dominated by the aftermath of the now infamous video of a busload of members of OU’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a racist chant. As readers of this blog are probably aware, the response to the video was swift and decisive. The video was shot last Saturday and was widely circulated by Sunday. By the end of the weekend, SAE’s national office had disbanded the OU chapter. Only a few hours later OU President David Boren announced that the University was banning SAE from the University. Later in the week, the two students shown leading the chant were expelled from the University.[1]

While the OU community has been admirably united in its condemnation of the racist chant itself, the conversation on and off campus seems slowly to be turning to address the broader issues raised by the incident. And much of the focus has been on the larger problems associated with Greek life. Since the appearance of Caitlan Flanagan’s exposé in the Atlantic one year ago, fraternities have been under increased scrutiny, not only for racism, but also for encouraging rape culture and for frequently putting their own members in physical danger. Though the increased attention is new, the problems are not. To the extent that historians have weighed in on these conversations, they’ve pointed out that these problems have deep historical roots.

But, last year, I encountered a very different invocation of fraternities and their historical problems that, I think, sheds some interesting light on the problems we face today.

Last year, the historian Mark Carnes published Minds on Fire, a book-length argument for Reacting to the Past, the immersive, role-playing historical pedagogy that he created at Barnard College.[2] Carnes argues that one of the virtues of RTTP is that it brings into the classroom the subversive play that has, for centuries, been a key component of student life, often to the consternation of universities and colleges. And in the American context, one of the chief sites of this subversive play have been fraternities, which by the late nineteenth century had largely replaced the debating societies that had played a similar role in student life in earlier decades. Carnes provides several pages of colorful anecdotes about the importance of fraternities to students and the fear and anger they provoked among faculty and administrators. University of Michigan professors in 1849 attacked fraternities for “debauchery, drunkenness, pugilism, and disorder and ravagism” (50). Cornell University President Andrew White later declared that a banned fraternity had become “a wretched, occult, demoralizing power” (51). Try as they might, universities couldn’t eliminate frats or the disruptive student behaviors that they encouraged. Carnes’s point, of course, is not to defend fraternities – then or now – but rather to point out that subversive play is an inevitable, and even important, part of the student experience. And, he later suggests, such play can be harnessed for pedagogical purposes.

Carnes is less interested in fraternities than in the larger phenomenon of subversive play that they instantiate. And he’s certainly not making a case for the particular forms of subversive play represented by fraternities and sororities. But Carnes’s account of fraternities reminds us, I think, of one of the reasons that they are – and have long been – such popular institutions among students.

As we, at the University of Oklahoma and elsewhere, continue to consider ways to reform, or even eliminate, Greek life on our campuses, it will be important to keep Carnes’s argument about subversive play in mind. Defenders of fraternities and sororities tend not to discuss such play, pointing instead to the friendships that these institutions forge and the service or leadership opportunities they provide. Critics are much more likely to draw attention to what Carnes calls subversive play. But, of course, there are more or less healthy forms of subversive play. While we should certainly strive to eliminate those forms that rely on such things as segregation, racism, sexual assault, and deadly hazing, we should also remember that the history of college life suggests that subversive play will almost certainly find an outlet, whether in Greek life or elsewhere. Rather than trying – and failing yet again – to eliminate such subversive play from a reformed version of student life, we should strive instead to find creative ways to rethink it. Channeling subversive play into relatively safer and less discriminatory directions will be one of the major challenges of future efforts to rethink fraternities and sororities.


[1] A number of civil liberties groups have raised 1st Amendment objections to the expulsions. And there is some indication that the board and alumni of the former OU SAE chapter might sue the University to reinstate the fraternity.

[2] I was inspired by Carnes’s book to attend a Reacting conference last fall in Eugene, Oregon. I’ll be teaching OU’s first Reacting class in the Honors College next fall.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m inclined to believe we should not institutionally encourage and endorse “subversive play.” Let individuals take responsibility and assume accountability for, such behavior on their own. Indeed, to allow “Greek fraternities and sororities” on campus is only, by default or implication, to sanction such behavior. Let’s have the courage of our convictions and put a stop to such nonsense. The elitism alone of such organizations speaks volumes. I still recall the behavior of “frat boys” when I lived and worked in Isla Vista, near UC Santa Barbara. It was conspicuously and egregiously disgusting, and stood apart in that respect. Boys may be boys and girls may be girls, but we can do better and not provide them with the sorts of environmental settings that facilitate immature and often indecent and illegal behavior. Should we sincerely want to eliminate “such subversive play from a reformed version of student life,” we’ll begin with eliminating fraternities and sororities and be done once and for all with such nonsense.

  2. I confess to having a few drinks while watching early episodes of the Rockford Files when I wrote this (incidentally, there was an insightful episode on fraternities in which a couple of young men were murdered…), so keep that in mind, although if sober, I would have only altered the rhetoric, not the substantive part.

  3. Subversive play, by definition, can never *really* be captured in a classroom. If whatever was thought to be subversive is now, in fact, in the classroom, it is now institutionalized and some new form of subversiveness will take its place outside. I know that some plays are, and can be subversive, but isn’t that related to the fact that the moment can’t be reproduced or is ad lib? Apart from improvisation, the fact that classroom plays are likely to be assessed (for a grade that has to do with a career) make it less friendly to artistic improvisation? Subversiveness would be defined as doing things outside of the allowable assessment framework.

    When I first read about Carnes’ pedagogical project, I don’t recall him talking much about subversive play. I remember it (correct me if I’m wrong) being presented as a way to capture the creativeness that goes into theater as opposed to the dryness of textbook reading and lectures and paper writing (a la unsubstantiated learning styles theory). It affords students the opportunity to be three dimensional and dynamic. – TL

    • Subversive play can indeed take place in the classroom. It does in my classroom everytime I run a Reacting to the Past game! Students get a tremendous amount of it, and put just as much into it (which can’t be said for all college classes). Ben has done an admirable job of describing Carnes’ book and the RTTP pedagogy.

      • Who is assessing its subversiveness? By whose definition? My point is that it’s the students’ prerogative to define whether the play is subversive. Has this been assessed from their point of view? – TL

  4. Think now of the U Colorado-Boulder professor who was disciplined and furloughed for “triggering” (offending) a student with her staged depictions of prostitution. Reacting to the Past, as all the comments suggest, is not necessarily subversive play–or, if it is, it might very well be subversive of present-day norms, like our commendable aversion to racism.

    I was a dumb jock and a frat boy once upon a time–I’ve seen their genetically related idiocies up close–so this business is perhaps more disturbing to me than to most academics. In any event, thanks, Ben.

  5. I think these are some great points Ben. Right now, I can’t help but think of the issues that have plagued historically African American fraternities and sororities–often called the “Divine 9.” They’ve had problems with hazing in the past, but they’re also devoted to public service and community work. Many of the most important African American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement happened to be in such organizations while they were in college (Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha). I only bring this up because the role that such organizations play at white-majority colleges and universities is one as a “safe space” for some African American students.

    What I’m getting at here is, I suppose, another form of “subversive play.” But whatever Oklahoma and other schools do, it’ll be interesting to see if fraternities and sororities come under greater scrutiny–and if they do, how long such attention lasts.

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