By Jeff Ramsey, Iota North Province President
We are entering a new era in the life of the college fraternity. The good news, more students are attending college than ever before. But, these students are increasingly coming to college with a driven focus on their careers and with seemingly little time for extra-curricular activities. Due to increasing costs, more students are choosing to enroll in 2-year community colleges or online schools like the University of Phoenix. Even the ones who are attending the traditional 4-year schools are struggling to make ends meet and often question the value of spending money for fraternity dues. And the proportion of women on campus is increasing as well.
Adding to these demographic changes college and university administrations and the federal government are focusing more than ever on issues of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and just plain sexism. Generally speaking, concern over these issues leads to more attention on two sources – athletics and fraternities. As fraternity men, we are faced with two related challenges – sharing our value to our communities and changing our often negative image as it relates to women.
Living in the modern, technological world that we do and the fact that this post started with a brief analysis of contemporary challenges, one would think that the solution would be something new and hip and, well, modern. However, as a historian I am trained to look to the past for solutions and this case is no different.
The solution to these problems is not to be found in new technology, but rather in our focus on the three Cardinal Principles of Phi Delta Theta. But, before you think I am simply going to give you a lecture on the importance of following these precepts laid out by our Founding Brothers, I want to instead focus on an often discussed, yet seldom understood, part of what makes fraternities important – their ability to help young people become men.
Contrary to popular belief, masculinity is not some biological trait. It is socially constructed and it is learned. In America, manhood is often defined as being tough, not showing emotion, and being confident and dominant in what we do. Former NFL player, motivational speaker and activist, Joe Ehrmann spells out what he calls the lies of masculinity: the Ball Field, the Bedroom, and the Billfold. Think about your early life. How often did you hear or feel that your status as a man was tied up in your athletic ability? Didn’t we often make fun of kids in school who weren’t as good at sports? As we got into middle school and high school, our worth as men was tied to our sexual appeal and abilities. Finally, in college and beyond, our value as men is often based on our earning ability. Ehrmann argues that these notions are myths that society, family, and peers drum into our heads from an early age. Often it is only with age and maturity that men are able to break these stereotypes and redefine what it means to be a man.
What we as fraternity men and as Phi Delts can do is challenge those myths to help our members redefine what it means to be a man. Brother Arthur R. Priest gave us the roadmap:
I believe in the college fraternity, creator of friendships.
I believe in its quick-sympathies, and its helping hand.
I believe in its brave idealism,
Stirring every valiant emotion.
Rousing every potential talent.
I believe in its compelling drive for sound scholarship.
For genuine culture.
For clear-eyed honesty.
For business integrity.
I believe in the college fraternity, maker of men.
Read this poem again. Where does it say that manhood means being sexually active? Where does it say that being a man means being good at sports? Where does it say that how much I make defines my worth as a man? Instead, Priest uses words like scholarship, culture, honesty, integrity, emotion, talent, sympathies, helping, and friendship. Being a man is about being true to yourself. This includes being willing to show emotion. It includes being there to help someone in need. It includes living life with integrity. It includes being a genuine friend to people in your life. It includes treating all people, regardless of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or background, with respect and kindness.
I will admit that at various points in my life, I have bought into the myths of manhood and at various points felt either validated or rejected as a man because of it. But, for me, being a member of Phi Delta Theta has helped me learn the value of being myself. Becoming the greatest version of yourself means not buying into the myths of masculinity. It means being able to be vulnerable and emotional if necessary and not allowing society or your peers dictate to you how you must act. A fraternity should be a place where you are free to be yourself and where you know your brothers won’t judge you or force you to conform to society’s definition of manhood.
So, how can we as members of Phi Delta Theta and leaders on campus and in the world show our value and change our reputations? By rejecting the myths of manhood we received growing up and by showing our brothers and the world what it means to be a real man. Like Brother Priest, I too believe in the college fraternity, maker of men.
Jeff Ramsey was initiated into the Wisconsin Beta chapter (Lawrence University) in 1997. He graduated in 2000 with a degree in history and has since been working with college students. He worked in Student Affairs for several years and has recently completed a Ph.D. in history and is looking for a full-time faculty job. He is currently the Province President of Iota North (the Wisconsin chapters) and previously served the Fraternity as a Leadership Consultant (2000-2003). He and his wife, Christina have two boys, Timothy (4 years old) and Samuel (4 months old) and live in the Milwaukee area. In his limited spare time, Jeff enjoys reading, sports and spending time with friends and family.