The functions of fraternities

The death of UP student Alex Icasiano from severe hazing by members of the Alpha Phi Beta fraternity has once more focused attention on the violence that seems to inhere in the culture of fraternities.  The violence comes in the form of brutal initiation rites and murderous rumbles so contradictory to the values of brotherhood and so radically inconsistent with the life of the mind.

RA 8049 which bans hazing did not avert the death of Alex Icasiano, nor did the long-standing sanctions against involvement in frat rumbles prevent the death of Dennis Venturina in 1994.  In the public mind, therefore, the next move ought to be to ban fraternities. Barbaric gangs of immature blood-thirsty men should have no place in an intellectual community, no matter how many Greek letters they sport in their name.  But is banning fraternities the correct approach to fraternity violence?

Fraternities persist because they serve a function; they respond to real needs of students.  They flourish when they are able to prove their value to the student inside and outside the school milieu and long after graduation.  They decline when the needs that gave rise to them and sustained them are better served by other associations.  They die when they are unable to reproduce themselves, when the total costs of frat membership grossly outweigh the benefits.

Fraternities do not depend for their existence on the recognition of the schools in which they operate.  They work their way to recognition as legitimate student organizations by proving their worth as workshops for leaders.  De-recognizing or banning them may hamper their activities, diminish their stature, and make it more difficult for them to attract new members.  It may put an end to younger fraternities, but it will not kill fraternity culture.  Fraternities that have had a long illustrious tradition survive through their alumni.  The networks they have formed over the years remain reliable sources of vital contacts in a highly personalistic society like ours.

A great part of the mystique of fraternities lies precisely in what they purport to offer – membership in an exclusive and imagined community of distinguished and outstanding persons who in their youth went through the same rituals of purification and brotherhood. Fratmen will tell you the names of their prestigious alumni in government, in the professions, and in the business community.  They will tell you what organizations on campus they control, how many honor graduates they have in the various colleges, and who are the brods in the faculty and in the entire university system.

No one applies to be a member of a fraternity.  One has to be invited or sponsored.  The more exclusive the fraternity, the more difficult it is to be invited. Once a student agrees to be a neophyte, he goes through a rigorous period of screening and trial, that may include physical and mental hazing, subjection to indignities, and intense, repetitive and pointless chores.  All these are supposed to test determination and loyalty, and, in a perverse way, enhance brotherhood.  I doubt if they do.  But in the imagination of a young student, fraternity initiations may be experienced as the definitive rites of passage to adulthood that our culture does not provide.

In UP in the ‘60s, initiations lasted an entire semester, concluding with a one-week finals.  Today, the whole process is compressed within one week.  The abbreviation of the initiation period is partly an adjustment to strict university rules, but is also the result of the diminishing number of students wanting to become members.  Most fraternities are forced to recruit several batches in one school year to ensure that there is a healthy number of resident brods to keep the fraternity going upon the graduation of older members.

A student knows more or less what to expect in initiations. Some fraternities are notorious for the ruthlessness of their initiations. Within a given fraternity, some members are known to be more brutal than others.  Some batches have an easier time than others.  I think it was the tragic misfortune of Alex Icasiano that there were only two in his batch and about 15 masters taking turns beating them up.

The remarkable thing about joining a fraternity is that it is all voluntary. And for many a student, becoming a fratman may constitute his first single decisive act as an accountable adult.  He will understandably not tell his parents or guardians. The whole process becomes for him a test of will and independence.  He also knows that he can quit the initiations any time.

Viewed from an outsider’s perspective, the ties and rituals of fraternity life might appear as nothing but the stupid and senseless practices of immature men, which they may well be.  But that is not how they look to countless young men in quest of an identity and of affiliations that will serve them through their adult lives.  In the ‘70s, many fraternities were rendered irrelevant by the rise of student activism.  Since then, they have not regained the prestige they used to have.

That is why it is disturbing when a bright young man like Alex Icasiano, already the leader of a high-minded militant student organization, decides to join a fraternity and expose himself to the savagery of underdeveloped minds.  It can only mean that the seductive mystique of an affiliation earned by agonistic struggle is once more at work in the university.  The challenge is not how to kill the fraternity system, but what alternative affiliations, far more fulfilling and less damaging to young bodies and spirits, to offer our students.


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