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History of Greek Life
This account of the history of Greek life traces the beginnings of the organizations that have come today to be known as Greek Fraternities and Sororities. This history was compiled from Baird's 20th Edition, Manual of American College Fraternities. The information concerning the origins and early uses of the words fraternity and sorority may be useful in fully understand the history of Greek Life.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, students began forming their own groups to debate and discuss current events and literature. This was largely a reaction toward the strict curriculum set forth by their colleges. Students wanted to learn about a greater variety of topics than were offered in the classroom, explore other academic venues in more detail than time allotted for with their professors during class time, and be able to express themselves freely. Hence began the first organized, modern-day debating and literary societies. Some universities fostered these organizations by encouraging students to think for themselves.
Inevitably, the students in these groups began to form deeper relationships and depend on each other for more than just an intellectually stimulating conversation. Through the end of the nineteenth century, intellectualness was still the center of fraternity life, but the members also made plenty of time to organize parties, sports events, dances and so on.
The Chapter House
The members of these groups sometimes lived together in college dorms or boarding houses, but the actual Chapter House did not become common until the 1890's. Most fraternities before this time were rather small in number, with no more than 30 members if that. Therefore, they were able to hold meetings on campus in a hall or dorm room. But their small numbers made it financially impossible to obtain a house for only the organization members to live in since they essentially did not have enough members to pay the cost of renting, much less owning a house.
However, in the 1890's some groups had graduated enough alumni who had become successful and donated money and services to the fraternity to help secure a house for the chapter. The advent of the Chapter House marked the beginning of a period of prosperity and increased growth for fraternities. It also signaled a change in the makeup of the organization and their priorities. What used to be a special occasion when the fraternity all gathered together all of a sudden became a regular event. While this meant more interaction, it also meant a large part of the attention of the fraternity had to be focused on the house itself. Alumni had to form boards to become incorporated and handle mortgage payments, legal matters and large repairs or improvements. Active members at the chapter had to handle day to day business, which no longer included only intellectual daydreaming, free expression or academic exploration. It meant cleaning, maintaining, and paying for the property, and in some cases building the house!
Since many of the members were now formally living together, recreational activities came to the forefront since they were spending so much time together. Economic concerns also became a priority, simply because it takes money to own and maintain a property. But the Chapter House gave its members the opportunity to learn more practical skills and offered them the chance to take on more responsibility and gain leadership skills.
Originally members were given formal invitations and initiated one by one, often on separate occasions. But with many organizations now having their own houses that needed to be kept full, they often fiercely competed for the interests of incoming freshman. "Rush" comes from this period when the fraternities literally "rushed" to get to the freshman before another organization got to them first. Today, "rush" has been replaced by "recruitment", signifying the active role a chapter takes to find the best members for their organizations.
The very first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776, and was kept a "secret". In 1831 they disclosed their secrets and bylaws. Today, some fraternities keep their traditions and constitutions secret, and some publish them. When many fraternities were founded, initiation rites and ceremonies were often borrowed and/or modified from any combination of the following items in history: Philosophy and Literature from Ancient Greeks and Romans; Jewish and Christian Scriptures; Chivalric traditions; military codes of honor, precepts and forms of Freemasonry; Enlightenment Science and Philosophy and Romanticism.
These items no longer held the importance in the curriculum that they had previously. So as time went on, teachings of The Classics became less and less common. As a result, the meanings of many of the rituals the fraternity was originally based on began to fade and become unknown to its members. Due to this lack of knowledge, some fraternities began to depend on theatrical aspects of ceremonies, as opposed to the deeper, more profound meaning that had essentially been lost. Some say this was the period in which "Hazing" took its roots.
There are also traditions surrounding fraternity items. Most organizations have some type of badge, crest and/or symbol, that only initiated members may wear. An exception to this rule is the old tradition where a fraternity man's sweetheart is given and allowed to wear the letters or symbol of the organization. It is not tradition for men to wear their sweetheart's letters or symbol.
Since the beginning of Greek Life, there have been vehement critics. So it is important to note that Greek Organizations truly have become more than just an extracurricular activity, but a way of life. Greek Organizations have fought for their continued existence throughout all kinds of hardships. Although chapter and member numbers may have fluctuated over time, The Greeks have survived every major period of chaos it has encountered and other tragedies including The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, World War I and II, the Great Depression, The Vietnam War, and the turmoil and upheaval of the 1960's and 70's, just to name a few. In the past some Universities have tried to shut them down and some state governments have tried to disband them. Yet the fraternity survives. And it will continue to survive.
What is a "Fraternity"?
Fraternities and sororities were established to further the social, scholastic and professional interests of its members. They are mainly associated with colleges and universities. Most fraternities and sororities adopt Greek letters to represent their organization, and as a result they are often referred to as Greek letter societies, or simply Greek organizations.
"Fraternity" vs. "Sorority"
The word fraternity comes from the Latin word "frater" meaning brother. The word fraternity is often used to described not only organizations comprised of men, but also women. Originally, both groups were called fraternities because that was the only word that existed during the 1800s to describe the type of organization they were. This may be due to the fact that most of these organizations were originally started by men. In 1882, the Gamma Phi Beta women at Syracuse University began to call themselves a sorority. This was by the suggestion of their advisor who was a Professor of Latin and thought the word suited them better. The word sorority comes from the Latin word "soror" meaning sister. However by this point, many women's organizations had already been officially and legally incorporated and could not change their name. Today, many of the older "sororities" are referred to by that name, but may have the word fraternity in their official title.