When what to my wondering ears did appear. . .

nicholassyrettbut my BFF (and this year, my housesitter), Nick Syrett, who was interviewed on Morning Edition by Renee Montagne on college fraternities sexual assault over the  longue durée.  That guy gets more free media for his book, The Company He Keeps:  A History of White College Fraternities (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2009) than any university press author I know.  UNC Press must love him.  I was impressed by how scholarly the interview itself was–you can see a transcript here, or listen to the interview yourself.

I don’t think it’s just the commenters at the NPR website, but what is it with the need for members of the general public to tell scholars that their research is either unnecessary or irrelevant?  (I’ll leave aside the commenters who resent “the PC odor around this collective guilt-mongering.”  That’s sadly predictable!)  The majority of the commenters today at NPR (so far!) are appreciative of story and seem to agree with Nick that the connections between fraternities and sexual violence is both longstanding and robust, but then someone like Theresa Younis writes, “Research?  Everybody knows that.”  (Eyeroll implied?)

fratguyLeaving aside the implication that no special knowledge or training is required to “know” any of this, I would argue that no, apparently “we” don’t in fact “know that” at all.   If in fact “we” knew “that,” do you think for a moment that powerful institutions like American universities would permit fraternities on campus?  Do you think parents would permit their children to join these criminal syndicates any more than they would condone their sons joining the Sinaloa cartel or any other criminal syndicate?  Do you think alumni would boast of their fraternity connections and donate money to them?  Do you think that Hollywood would give us movie after movie over the past forty years dramatizing and glamorizing Fraternity life?  I don’t think that the majority of Americans, even if you consider only Americans with some postsecondary education, know “that” at all.

Even if “we” did in fact “know” all of this in our hearts and act on it, is there yet no value in a scholar researching and documenting the longstanding association of fraternities with antisocial violence of all kinds?  Syrett does a terrific job documenting with historical evidence his assertions about the continuties as well as the changes in fraternity life over nearly two hundred years.  Even if you think you “know” this about fraternities, I don’t think anyone alive today really “knows” this about American fraternities much before the 1950s, let alone the 1910s, 1870s, or the 1830s, and I just don’t understand the need to dismiss those who have chosen to try to understand a problem by grasping its historical roots.

Is this just typical American anti-intellectualism?  Is it rooted in part in antifeminism or anxiety when anyone talks or writes about gender as an important divisor of privilege and money?  The reason I ask is that this is how the general public also dismisses feminism or any kind of feminist criticism, which is first greeted by “that’s a ridiculous and outrageous idea!!” and then migrates over time to the claim that “we don’t need it any more because everyone knows that already.”  The common denominator is the urge to shut the conversation down immediately.

Coincidence?  Maybe, but it might also be an interesting confluence.

13 thoughts on “When what to my wondering ears did appear. . .

  1. Definitely a confluence of shutdowns in both situations. Anything that questions power and humanity with respect to gender gets that treatment. Enough to make you wonder what they’re so afraid of. (Not.)


  2. A more cynical view would be that yes, we do know all that, but we don’t care because boys will be boys, and the girls are drunk sluts, etc etc. My god, have you looked at the comments to the articles in CHE or IHE, much less the MSM? There are always a huge number of commenters who deny that there is any problem At All. It is no wonder that frats are glorified.

    (That said, I admit I know very little about the history of frats, so.)


  3. Great point about the unmoderated comments on most online publications, even those catering to a higher ed audience. Ara, you might be interested in this article from Slate by Anne Applebaum, in which she argues against the anonymous comments on most online publications. Applebaum writes, “human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, should belong to real human beings, and not to anonymous trolls.”


  4. I’m always disappointed by how often comments in online publications catering to an educated readership have that “popped into my head” quality. (The appearance of the tired term “PC” is a reliable sign that little real thought is going on.) On CHE I often find myself engaging with people who clearly must be capable of much greater insight than their comments reflect. Yet I’m not sure there is a good solution to the problem. Obviously, permitting anonymity encourages irresponsible behavior, but I still believe it has offsetting benefits. Regarding Applebaum, I should say that “human rights” really don’t enter into the question. My right to freedom of expression does not include a right to post comments on this blog, for example.


  5. Nothing would distract him from housesitting, his most sacred duty this academic year! He told me that he recorded the interview with Montagne last Wednesday before he left town at KUNC, about a mile and half from said house.


  6. It’s increasingly hard to find the bridge between the group who knows something (as in this case) and the group who doesn’t care.

    And that bridge is the point, isn’t it?

    Except that it’s always worthwhile just to tell the truth.


  7. The bridge is the point, but I would argue that someone who heard Syrett’s interview or read it online and also was motivated enough to comment (even to say “we know this already”) is someone who cares about the issue at stake. (Or is defensive enough to want to shut down conversations with which one disagrees!)

    I’m sure millions of people heard the interview, though, “well, isn’t that interesting? I had no idea that American fraternities have been around so long, or that their relationship with their universities has always been so antagonistic.” The problem is that people who liked what they heard aren’t nearly as motivated to fire up their computers and make a comment.

    This is why I think the craze to open comments sections on every news article and website 10-12 or so years ago was a major mistake. Public opinion is only rarely enlightening even when the public signs their letters to the editor with their real names, addresses, and phone numbers, but at least they’re accountable for their own mistaken ideas or lunacy.


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