The Underside of College LIfe

I tend to idealize my own college experience, which I suppose everyone does after a certain age or even before. When I talk to my low-income first generation-college students I probably idealize college even more. Even so, I know I went to learn things and not for the parties or simply to make “contacts,” which seems to be part of the rationale given out these days.

I joined a fraternity that was primarily nerdy but not as nerdy as one or two others. That year they pledged some jocks (apparently the most obnoxious and loutish they could find) to bolster our street cred for some reason. I ended up having to room with one. Our biggest party each semester was a root beer float bash that earned snickers but had a huge following. (We had beer, too, but still…) We showed a silly movie in the living room and people had a good time. Cleaning up was awful– sticky and smelling of warm beer and melted ice cream. All in all, a fun time.

Our pledging was negligible. Amherst was a 100% rush college (everyone who wanted to be in a fraternity had to be offered a spot) so it all came together pretty simply. I can’t speak for other houses, but I think we just had to show up to join. I lived in the Phi Delt house for two years and was secretary for three semesters. It was a nice deal overall. Good guys, nice facility, a kind of refuge, sometimes.

Surely there were darker things going on nearly 40 years ago at the houses, which is why Amherst finally disbanded them (coeducation finished them for good officially). Even so, they sprang up off campus, with wild parties and less supervision than ever. As someone who works with high school and college students, I still hear once in a while about events that are truly scary to me. I can’t imagine being 18 and faced with some of the out of control activities I hear about. When ambulances have to be called, well…

Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic online article, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” has me even more worried. We tell students about the many positives of college life and attendance and then they have to face these things. I know it’s wrong to generalize, but how can they stand up to and avoid the kinds of nonsense Flanagan describes? It’s not only about the increasingly dangerous and thoughtless behavior of students, but also about the legal abyss that opens up when something truly awful happens. National fraternities in many cases can dominate the colleges their chapters populate, and the injured may have no recourse. A sobering look.