Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air: A Student's Perspective on the Greek System

Today, I read a thoughtful piece on the Greek system at my school, written by a Philosophy major (of course!). Ted argues that the Greek system has run out of "fresh ideas" and challenges his fellow Greeks to reinvigorate the mission. Here is the full article for your reading pleasure:

What Greek System?
Actions and Ideals in Greek Life.
by Ted Collier

Today I watched with a smile as sisters of Sigma Gamma Rho held a short step-show performance for their founder’s week on the steps of the library. They not only captivated passers by with an impressive display of choreography, but they proudly and publicly proclaimed the ideals of their organization and described the difficulty involved in founding a Black sorority in 1922. As I stood there, I began to think...I began to think about my Greek experience at Gettysburg and what I had heard of other’s Greek experiences; I wondered if my brothers would have the courage enough to stand on the steps of the library and do something different on a campus such as this; I thought about the ideals the girls were proclaiming. Then I thought about the ideals of my own organization, the ones we read about in our manual. I thought about my Greek experience and whether or not it was consistent with the ideals in that manual’s rhetoric.

The ideals I am talking about, for those of you who have never read the manual of a Greek organization, tend to convey a general message resembling something like: “the Greek system should be a source of cultural, moral, athletic, and intellectual strength and integrity on a college campus.” The qualities emphasized are those such as cooperation, creating strong individuals, service to one’s community, and integrity. As I stood outside the library, I began to ask myself: are these the images conjured in your head of Greek organizations, not based on stereotype and rumor, but from your personal experiences? Do the Greek students in your experience embody the ideals which are supposedly central to their organizations, ideals they take vows to uphold?

I found that I could answer myself honestly in the following way, based on my experience of a variety of Greek organizations over the past four years. There are individuals in Greek organizations whom absolutely do their best to strive to embody those positive ideals, and there are times when Greek individuals come together and put a lot of effort into a project which manifests those ideals. However, these individuals and events were, unfortunately, not what occupied the forefront of my recollection of the Greek experience. While I have a lot to thank the Greek system for, including many meaningful friendships, a great deal of my experience has indicated that on this campus, there is a high frequency of Greeks whose actions and mindsets do not convey a commitment to their organization’s founding ideals (and I am not claiming to be exempt from that statement myself).

What is it about the Greek system which seems to place Greek students in an environment in which they are unable to live up to the ideals they proclaim a commitment to? My thoughts on this question are stated below, and whether or not you find yourself agreeing with them, I hope they at least provoke you to think critically about things in your Gettysburg experience which may have become routine.

I believe the single most damaging phenomenon affecting Greek organizations at Gettysburg is a lack of fresh ideas. In other words, the problems are: conformity of individuals to the way the Greek system and the Greek member has been portrayed in popular culture, conformity of the organizations to the norms of the campus, and conformity of new members to the traditions and norms of individual organizations.

Conformity to destructive societal stereotypes and tradition for the sake of tradition will cause the Greek system to self-destruct. The institutions will stagnate, the present focus on destructive habits continue and will cause them to be, rightly, dismantled. Tradition is not an argument for anything; we cannot define the way things ought to be from the way that they are or have been. What are needed, for any healthy organization, are new ideas, critical thought, and a willingness to evolve. The challenge for the Greek leader is to figure out how to develop a shared experience which transcends class year while being able shed the less constructive “universal” aspects of Greek life, i.e. Hollywood’s portrayal of a Greek party or pledge process.

Pledging is the single greatest experience which has the potential to define the mental environment of a Greek organization. A pledge process should foster growth of strong individuals capable of independent, critical thought. It should not create an environment in which a person feels uncomfortable to voice their opinion or to be themselves. Pledging does not have to mean submission to the authority of past ideas and present leaders. A pledge process does not need to rely on negative physical and/or mental reinforcement; if it does, one needs to ask oneself about the value of what is being taught. One way to determine the value of any practice is to examine who else is using similar techniques for what ends. A military interrogator dealing with a suspect focuses on a one-way power relationship, uses stress positions, environmental manipulation (noise, light, temperature), and mental manipulation in an attempt to produce a submissive person he can use. On the other hand, a volunteer in the Big-Brothers/Big Sisters program would focus on positive growth-engendering methods to promote certain behavior via a mentoring relationship. I use these examples because we in the Greek system often claim to be “Bigs” to our new members but sometimes find ourselves under pressure to act more like the interrogator. Both methods try to get someone else to act in accordance with some expectation. While the negative approach attempts to hollow a person out and fill them with someone else’s expectations, the positive approach reinforces individuality and can develop a person who is capable of opening the door for new creative possibilities. What kind of people do we want comprising our organizations?

It is my assertion that it is difficult to see the presence of Greek life on the Gettysburg College campus. I hear the “Greek” community spoken of constantly. I see plenty of Greek letters around campus, and I know where a lot of the parties take place. However, I would argue that we do not truly have a large Greek system here at Gettysburg, but rather something very different. As a Greek member myself, I wonder whether this necessarily must be the case. From what I’ve heard, historically Black sororities and fraternities seem to have a good reputation for their focus on service. I would argue that if all Greeks followed the lead of such organizations and focused on putting their ideals of mutual support and service into action, they would find the bonds formed are much greater than those fostered through pledging and ritual. The Greek system is a powerful institution with enormous potential to positively impact the community of which it is a part. It is for this reason I challenge myself and my peers to be honest with ourselves in regards to our actions and ideals.