Blog Post Author: Adam McCready
Date: October 2015
Building Men of Character: An Argument to Forgo the Fraternity Values Movement
Various stakeholders, including students, alumni, faculty and staff, routinely champion the values espoused by fraternities, and urge fraternity men to act congruently with the tenets of their organizations. While ideals vary from fraternity to fraternity, most aim to advance the intellectual, moral and social development of their members, and they promote values like love, virtue, honor, charity, and truth. Several fraternities outwardly state that they aim to cultivate true gentlemen. Yet, if the continued onslaught of problematic fraternity-related events are any indication of the trajectory of the United States fraternity system, it is evident that the values-based movement has not influenced the everyday behaviors and experiences of fraternity men. This dissonance between the celebrated intent of fraternities and the actions of their members should come with little surprise. The dogmatic rules and values-based expectations that define the ultimate reality of being a fraternity man inevitably do more harm to fraternities than good, because this perceived knowledge of the true fraternity experience impinges our understanding of the evolving nature of membership in these organizations.
The fraternity values movement is problematic for several reasons. First, with the exception of the fraternities founded by and for underrepresented students, and other more modern organizations, fraternities were established by wealthy, white, Christian men attending nonsecular single-sex colleges and universities. The ideals of these organizations reflect those of their founders, and inextricably alienate many of their current members. In other words, these values foster a hegemonic conceptualization of “fraternity man” that no longer matches the demographics or interests of the current student population. To be a true gentleman is an impossible task for many fraternity men, and it is often met with indifference by members.
Second, these values are used by fraternity men to justify their actions and inaction. While many of these actions may be deemed positive in nature, they may also have unintended consequences. The importance placed on social growth serves as a rationale for the next alcohol-fueled party. An organizational commitment to charity, instead of the personal interests of the members, becomes the motivation for an unauthentic community service event. Secrecy becomes a mechanism for members to hide hazing and other insidious behaviors from others. The knowledge of what it means to be a fraternity man, as defined by the member’s understanding of a fraternity’s values, shapes the discourse of the fraternity experiences for these members.
Upon stripping away this values-based mantra, it is clear that fraternities have sustained themselves because of the deep friendships formed by their members. These vulnerable and intimate relationships are the true nature of brotherhood. To alter the behaviors of fraternity men, we must understand the formation and perpetuation of these relationships, and how men make meaning of their identity through their interconnectedness with other men in their organizations. By understanding the actions and behaviors of fraternity men, we can identify the emergent values that underlie their decision-making.
Dewey (1929/1998) wrote, “Philosophy which is willing to abandon its supposed task of knowing ultimate reality and to devote itself to a proximate human office might be of great help in such a task.” To truly understand fraternities, we must forgo the values-based fraternity movement, and instead understand the how men make meaning of fraternity through their experiences.
Dewey, J. (1998). Philosophy’s search for the immutable. In L. A. Hickman & T. M. Alexander (Eds.), The essential Dewey: Volume 1: Pragmatism, education, democracy (pp. 102–112). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (Reprinted from The quest for certainty, 1929)