When hazing scandals occur on college campuses, there typically seems to
be a collective public reckoning over how fraternities have
sunk so low.
But in reality, hazing is not a recent phenomenon.
That topic is explored in John Hechinger’s newly released
“True Gentlemen: The
Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” which explains
fraternity hazing has roots in ancient Greece and medieval
Europe, and was imported to America during the colonial period.
In fact, by the end of the American Civil War, “returning
soldiers brought military-style hazing to college campuses …
the pledge period soon grew to weeks or months, devolving into
the orgy of abuse so familiar today,” Hechinger wrote. “Early
hazers doled out beatings, force-fed vile substance, and staged
At the turn of the 20th century, Stanford University fraternities
were stripping pledges nude and and submerging them until they
nearly drowned, Dartmouth’s Delta Kappa Epsilon was branding its
pledges, and the term “Hell Week” had come into existence.
But perhaps the most horrifying stories
about hazing today are those that result in the death of a
pledge. Such incidents shock the collective consciousness of
Still, hazing deaths are not new phenomena. One of the first
high-profile deaths occurred in 1873 when a Kappa Alpha Society
pledge at Cornell University was blindfolded in the countryside
and left to find his way home in the dark. On his way, he fell
off of a cliff and died.
Despite the long history of fraternity abuses, Hechinger doesn’t
conclude with a call to ban Greek organizations from college
campuses. He notes that it’s likely not even a viable option on
public universities as there would be First Amendment issues
related to the freedom of association.
Instead, he points to visibility and public pressure as external
forces that help keep fraternities accountable. And he calls on
fraternities themselves to be accountable and rethink their
typical power structures, offering options like admitting
women, forming partnerships between historically white and black
fraternities, or raising academic requirements.
“Individual fraternities could experiment with new approaches,
bringing the kind of fresh energy that animated the movement at
the beginning,” Hechinger wrote.
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