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What’s Greek About It?

greekAs many of us return to campus this fall, we’ll be passing by various buildings adorned with Greek letters that fewer can identify every year. I’m talking about the fraternity and sorority houses, of course—what’s known as Greek life and causes an annual tug-of-war at many institutions. Alumni/ae wax nostalgic over the lifelong bonding that marked their Greek experience. Faculty complain of the hungover frat members they see on Friday mornings. Deans tally the numbers hauled off to the hospital. Women’s and minority organizations criticize gender-related violence and exclusionary policies. And current members of fraternities and sororities tune it all out in order to plan their fall bash and their rush protocols.

Here’s a sign of my generation: For years after I began teaching in the 1980s, I didn’t understand what Greek life referred to. I thought GLO stood for some sort of financial category, as in “We’re having a lot of problems with GLOs this year.” Yes, I’d seen Animal House with its toga party, but the toga was an outfit worn in ancient Rome, not ancient Athens. My mother was a Kappa Alpha Theta and remembered her sorority chant, but she went to college during World War II. Attending college on the West Coast, I knew these organizations existed, but they didn’t add up to any sort of life, much less a Greek one.

By now I’m used to hearing Greek life bemoaned, but I got curious: How have the Greeks, those exemplars of philosophy, Olympic games, and misbehaving deities, become a metonym for student-run social clubs? It turns out that the Greeks themselves had such clubs, known as phratries, membership in which was at one point a requirement of Athenian citizenship. They seem to have been hereditary and to have been associated with various Greek deities. The idea of club membership didn’t begin with the Greeks, of course, and it persisted both in and out of academe right up to the founding of the College of William & Mary in 1693. But the Greek motif returned when a group of William & Mary men grew sick of the secret organizations on campus that were “noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of members.” They chose Greek initials for their new, more high-minded organization because many of the societies already on campus were Latin-themed; and although all students (unlike most today) entered college with some Latin and Greek under their belts, Greek was considered more scholarly and esoteric. As all current members know, the initials they chose, ΦΒΚ, or Phi Beta Kappa, stood for Philosophia Biou Kubernētēs, “Philosophy [is the] guide to life.”

Obviously, there’s a difference these days between honorary organizations like Phi Beta Kappa and Duke’s recently suspended Kappa Sigma. But what strikes me is how “Greek life” has changed its meaning from, say, 1895, the high point of the phrase’s use according to Google Ngrams, when it referred to the thought and customs of people living by the Mediterranean “from the age of Alexander to the Roman Conquest.” In the more recent uptick of the phrase, beginning in 2001, it refers more to Torn Togas: The Dark Side of Campus Greek Life or to Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige.

Since my time of ignorance, I’ve learned that the Greeks on campus are no more likely than anyone else to have names like Christopoulos or Archimedes. I know, now, that banning GLOs will not affect the immediate bottom line, whatever havoc it might wreak on alumni/ae donations. But I can’t help feeling something’s been lost. The … Greek part of it all, perhaps. Though perhaps they hazed and partied and did keg stands in ancient Athens, too. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

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