Confessions of a fratman

One of the warnings that my parents drummed into my ears when I entered the University of the Philippines in the early ‘60s was to resolutely avoid the fraternities.  I took this to mean staying out of their path as a neophyte or as an unwitting target of their notoriously violent wars.  That early, UP fraternities were already front-page material for the dailies because of the brutal hazings and violent rumbles on campus.

As a 15-year-old probinsyano bent on earning a UP degree, I was determined to heed my parents’ advice.  Their anxiety had been formed by the sensational reporting of the havoc that the fraternities were thought to have inflicted on academia.  But as I soon discovered, not all fratmen were demons.  In the dormitory where my parents thought I would be safe, I found myself sharing a room with three upperclassmen, two of them fratmen from rival fraternities.  One was an Upsilonian, the other was a Sigma Rhoan.  But the kindest of them was the Upscan.  Dutifully, I avoided the frats and joined the UP Student Catholic Action or UPSCA.  The shaping of an Upscan was varied and interesting.  I participated in a wide range of enriching activities and met many people who remained my close friends until today.

I was an active Upscan for only 2 years however.  On my third year, the pressure to join a fraternity became very intense; I felt that my stay in the university was incomplete.  There was something about the exclusive bonding of young men that I found irresistible.  The fratmen in my dorm would tell stories of grit and tenacity during initiation rites, of manhood being tested in the paddle line, of brods giving support to one another in frat rumbles as well as in examinations.  They would rattle off the names of their illustrious alumni in government, the business sector, and in the key professions.  I learned that not a few were joining the fraternities of their fathers, in conscious emulation of the life their elders led in the university of their imagination.

My father was not a UP alumnus, so I did not feel burdened by any duty.  But, out of curiosity, I did eventually join a fraternity — the newlyformed Alpha Sigma, an arts and sciences-based fraternity that pledged itself to nationalist leadership and academic excellence.  My son followed me a generation later, letting me know he had joined my fraternity only after he had survived the initiations.  If he was not himself conscious of it, I guess his friends had given him the notion that joining his father’s fraternity was part of his filial obligation.

Looking back, I now think that joining a fraternity and defying my parents’ explicit advice was the beginning of my own attempt at selfcreation.  It gave me confidence to know that I could choose to be something without previously clearing it with anyone.  I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that by becoming a part of a fraternity, I was completing my experience of university life.

The thought that fraternities are the keepers of a large chunk of the university’s venerable heritage constitutes one of the seductions of fraternity membership.  A newly-sworn member is reminded of the long tradition of which he is now a vital link.  By his own achievements he is expected to contribute to the fraternity’s fame and the university’s proud legacy.

An invitation to join a fraternity is thus treated as an honor in itself. The fraternity is a jealous lover.  It demands total loyalty of its members.  It will not tolerate public clashes of opinion among those who are supposed to be brothers.  A fraternity will not hesitate to expel a member who violates the organization’s code of conduct.  The ties that bind the brods are expected to be stronger than blood.  In return, the fraternity will protect and take care of every brod who needs help. For many, this is an indefinite commitment that extends far beyond the four or five years that one typically spends in the university.

The values and practices of fraternity life can breed both principled leaders as well as narrow-minded and violent warlords.  The fraternities attract all kinds of individuals.  The most dangerous fratmen are those who derive all their self-esteem from membership in the fraternity.  They tend to have no life outside the fraternity.  They treat every personal affront or injury to a member as an assault on the whole organization.  It is also these individuals who demand that neophytes pay their way into the fraternity with their blood if not with their lives.  It is they who will find every excuse to go on a war hunt against members of rival frats.  Fortunately, they belong to the minority in the fraternity system.  Still, there are enough of them to destroy what is otherwise a positive feature of university life.

What is to be done with the fraternities?  Those who take a simplistic and dim view of these organizations would recommend their abolition as a way of ending rumbles and hazing.  But I doubt if fraternities can be dissolved so easily.  Their persecution would only force them to operate in the shadows, and create the mystique of membership in a secret organization.  It would be worse if they no longer felt obliged to protect a public image.  In the final analysis, the greatest deterrent to irresponsible behavior among fraternities is the awareness that the fraternity belongs not only to the residents but also to the brods that have graduated.

The custodians of a fraternity’s name are ultimately its alumni.  It is to them that the universities must turn for help in finding enduring solutions to the problems of the fraternity system.


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