Tag Archives: purpose of fraternities

Changing Negative Traditions: A Lesson From West Point

Tradition is the essence of fraternity.  But all too often members take advantage of our instinctive love for tradition to justify actions that contradict our founding principles.  What’s worse, when something becomes tradition–even a negative tradition–it doesn’t change easily.

Once again, Major General Joseph P. Franklin, former commandant of cadets at West Point, offers insight in his book Building Leaders The West Point Way: Ten Principles From The Nation’s Most Powerful Leadership Lab:

I should point out that plebe summer has changed over time.  While it stresses and tests even the most capable of cadets, it is, thankfully, far from the degrading experience that it was in the early part of the twentieth century.  When General MacArthur became superintendent at West Point in 1919, he viewed the summer session as an opportunity to train young people properly, rather than just wear them down until they could no longer function.  This latter practice, which had actually resulted in death of one cadet several years before, had lasted many decades and become entrenched as tradition, giving it something of an untouchable status.

The changes MacArthur implemented from the top speak volumes to the maturity and courage of Sigma Nu’s founders.  Hopkins, Riley and Quarles had enough foresight to recognize dishonorable behavior disguised as tradition when they saw it.  But what could only be accomplished at West Point by a venerable military leader, MacArthur, was attempted by our founders as mere cadets (and five decades earlier!).

MacArthur’s prescient changes also parallel  Sigma Nu’s transition from “pledging” to “candidate education” over the past few decades.  The pejorative “pledging” over time became associated with personal servitude, arbitrary discipline and often a source of entertainment for current members–none of which have anything to do with Sigma Nu’s mission.  “Candidate education,” on the other hand, is the true purpose of Sigma Nu put into practice.

In retrospect it’s not hard to understand how such practices came into being, but it’s not easy to change them once ingrained.  A lot of behavior and training techniques prior to MacArthur’s arrival had been sophomoric at best and brutal, even fatal, at worst.  Suffice it to say that things changed dramatically under MacArthur.  He implemented a system in which plebe summer represented a training opportunity not only for new cadets but also for the senior cadets who were in charge of the new cadets in Beast Barracks.  Not surprisingly, MacArthur’s reforms were resisted by many, cadets and officers alike, and he left the Academy with, in his view, the job unfinished.

Sound familiar?  It takes time to implement big changes.  Leaders who take a stand now may never see the positive impact of their actions.  But don’t be discouraged, as courageous actions will inspire others to follow.  It calls to mind the famous Jonathan Swift quote, “When a genius appears in this world you may know him by this sign, that all of the dunces are in confederacy against him.”

Franklin concludes the chapter with this timeless advice:

While mission statements and philosophical musings are all well and good, it’s crucial that we, as leaders, never cease to critically examine our behavior in the context of the principles we value as leaders.

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The Purpose of Ritual

Are your chapter’s Ritual ceremonies a mindless recitation of arbitrary words or a meaningful reaffirmation of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose?

From Language in Thought in Action, by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa:

Sermons, political caucuses, conventions, pep rallies, and other ceremonial gatherings illustrate the fact that all groups–religious, political, patriotic, scientific, and occupational–like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain accustomed activities.

Among these ritual activities is always included a number of speeches, either traditionally worded or specifically composed for the occasion, whose principal function is not to give the audience new information, not to create new ways of feeling, but something else altogether.

The authors expand on this thought using the great American tradition of college pep rallies:

The members of “our team” are “introduced” to a crowd that already knows them.  Called upon to make speeches, the players mutter a few incoherent and often ungrammatical remarks, which are received with wild applause.  The leaders of the rally make fantastic promises about the mayhem to be performed on the opposing team the next day.  The crowd utters “cheers,” which normally consist of animalistic noises arranged in extremely primitive rhythms.  No one comes out any wiser or better informed than before.

…we cannot help observing that, whatever the words used in ritual utterance may signifiy, we often do not think very much about their signification during the course of the ritual.

We cannot regard such utterances as meaningless, because they have a genuine effect upon us.

What is the good that is done us in ritual utterances?  It is the reaffirmation of social cohesion.  Societies are held together by such bonds of common reactions to sets of linguistic stimuli.

Ritualistic utterances, therefore, whether made up of words that had symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of other meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of languages: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case, group feelings) are attached.  Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group.  The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone not a member of the lodge.  When language becomes ritual, its effect becomes, to a considerable extent, independent of whatever significance the words possessed.

These observations, while insightful, do not describe the fraternity ritual.  The authors may describe the ritual as it is currently used by some chapters but certainly not as it should be used.

The authors do, however, help us acknowledge the reality that when many organizations perform ritual ceremonies they are merely ‘going through the motions’ rather than communicating meaningful ideas–in our case a reminder of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose.  In his timeless essay The Secret Thoughts of a Ritual, Edward M. King explains the purpose of fraternity ritual much more eloquently:

After being up almost all day and all night for a week, I am taken to a dimly lighted room where a number of people are gathered. There I am presented with much feeling and serious drama. It is obviously a moment of great climax for some of the people, for they are seeing and hearing me for the very first time. Shortly after the ceremony, I am brought back to the dark room and placed in the locked file drawer and I am not seen or heard of until the end of the next semester. In this case, as a ritual, what am I? Well, as I see it, I am a perfunctory service that must be performed in order to get new members into an organization. Once the initiation is over, I’m pretty much pigeonholed until the next class is to be initiated.

However, in some fraternity houses I exist in quite a different fashion. Shortly after the initiation the brothers come in one by one, get me out of the drawer and look me over carefully. Some just like to read me, others try to memorize me. Whatever the case, I like it when they use me. Sometimes they even argue over me, and this gets exciting because you see that’s what I’m about. I’m meant to be read carefully, discussed and even argued about. Yes, in fact, I can even be changed. I’m really a very human document, one that was written down some time ago after a great deal of thought of one or two men and I have been reworded, rephrased and re-evaluated many, many times.

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