Fraternities can no longer be intellectualism's scapegoats

From residential changes to Chronicle articles to public meetings, the last three years have seen much debate over fraternities' role on campus. Throughout that process and once again in recent weeks, fraternity opponents have consistently claimed that the presence of on-campus fraternities diminishes Duke students' intellectual experience during their undergraduate tenure.

Inspired by Reynolds Price's passionate Founders Day speech three years ago, the Duke community never questioned the core assumption that fraternities inimically affect intellectual life at Duke. As Duke closes its first year under a new residential regime, I wish to revisit the assumption that provided both starter and kindling for the new system under which we now live.

Initially, the assumption appears plausible. Members of fraternities live together, eat together, party together. Should we not further suppose that such close interactions stifle frequent, meaningful and contentious discourse? No.

Deep initiates into academic disciplines accept hard core beliefs against which their professional brethren brook little deviance. Professional economists do not legitimate theories that do not assume rational behavior on the part of economic actors. Literary theorists do not accept that any work has an absolute meaning outside of its context. Despite these requirements, few would suggest that economists' or lit theorists' disciplinary conformity makes them anti-intellectual.

Different disciplines requires different analytical tools. A physicist will explain the world differently from a philosopher even when answering the same question. Seventeenth century French poetry required rigid acceptance of certain rhyme and meter schema yet still allowed for an enormous range of creativity. Whereas an economist might require a formal mathematical explanation of social phenomena other social scientists might rely on anecdotal or qualitative analysis for hypothesis testing.

Alternately, different cultural backgrounds lead to varying methodological approaches to understanding and conceptualizing problems. Our life experiences give us a framework to evaluate the credibility of different theories to which we come into contact. As that range of experience expands, what we consider credible will change. Those from similar social circumstances are more likely than those from radically different backgrounds to have the same biases. Condemning fraternities for fostering intellectual conformity both places a burden on them that we do not place on other organizing forces and denies the truth that intellectual creativity thrives within both academic and social constraints. When students choose their major, they necessarily focus on one pattern of thinking at the expense of others; when students choose to join a fraternity they gain one set of social experiences at the expense of others.

I do not suggest that fraternities provide the same intellectual stimulation as academic discourse-clearly they do not. My point, rather, is that we cannot call fraternities anti-intellectual because they engender similar biases among their members. Moreover, within the context of residential life at Duke, fraternities and selective houses provide the most fertile ground for discussion.

Students feel more comfortable having an intellectual confrontation with a friend than with a passerby. Whether or not we value comfort in our residential system is a reasonable question, but if we want residence halls to be places of discussion, then, with the admitted qualification of "on week nights," fraternities positively achieve that aim. Because fraternity members know each other well, the likelihood of meaningful discourse is higher in their sections than in independent houses. Last semester in Pi Kappa Alpha, for example, the RA (a divinity student) held a weekly seminar on the meaning of life that a rotating group of 12 to 15 fraternity members attended. Other fraternities likely have similar programs. Walk down any dormitory hall on campus with open doors, and you will find conversation ranging over almost any topic. Unfortunately, few independent houses have halls with many doors open simultaneously.

Although the social and alcoholic excesses engendered by fraternity Bacchanals do not benefit Duke, eliminating fraternities would not improve intellectualism, however it is defined, for both the quantity and quality of discussion among students out of professorial earshot would decrease.

Concern over Duke's intellectual environment is an important part of our community's self-evaluative process, but if we are going to engage in that discussion, let there at least be consistency in goal and means of analysis. Has the demonization of one participant in a collective discussion ever been accepted by intellectuals as a reasonable and appropriate means of argument? If the answer is no, then those wishing to debate intellectualism at Duke must not do so with rhetorical attacks on fraternities but must instead find a rational and factual basis for their complaints.

Alex Rogers is a Trinity senior.


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