The Prodigal College Returns

The trend seems clear: Michigan, Florida State, Texas State, Ohio State, and other big schools have banned fraternities. School administrators are scrambling to control dangerous drinking, deadly hazing, and horrifying sexual assault. I can’t help but ask: Have the fundamentalists been proven right?

blanchard hall

Do all paths lead back to Blanchard Hall?

A hundred years ago, after all, as I explore in my new book, fundamentalists founded their new network of evangelical colleges, institutes, and universities for two main reasons. First, they wanted an intellectual refuge. Mainstream colleges, fundamentalists universally agreed, had drunk the Kool-aid of evolutionism and materialism. At least as dangerous, however, were the behavioral norms that had come to prevail at mainstream schools.

In the 1920s, fundamentalist school leaders such as Charles Blanchard at Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones at Bob Jones College in Florida promised their schools would protect students from both loose ideas and loose behavior.

At Wheaton, for example, fraternities were banned, along with smoking, drinking, cinema, dancing, and card-playing. The school posted spies outside the downtown movie theater to make sure Wheaton students weren’t sneaking in. At Bob Jones, students were prohibited from “loitering,” talking freely with members of the opposite sex, and absolutely anything that hinted of “jazz.”

For a century now, evangelical schools have been mocked as small-minded anti-intellectual “church colleges,” hopelessly out of touch with modern higher ed. They have also been attacked—often by their own students—as ridiculously controlling.

Back when he was a Wheaton student in 1966, for example, historian Mark Noll led the drive to reexamine the “Pledge.” It was simply not possible, students felt, for them to receive a decent college education if they weren’t allowed to make their own decisions. They were embarrassed to tell their friends at other schools that they weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

But who is embarrassed now? As leaders of secular colleges struggle to find ways to impose restrictions on student behavior, are they reverting to fundamentalist arguments of the 1920s? As Frank Bruni argued recently in the New York Times,

On a range of fronts, fraternities — and sororities — contradict our stated values and undercut our supposed goals for higher education, putting our inconsistencies and hypocrisies under a magnifying glass.

To ban them, though, or even to take real moves to enforce rules against certain types of student behavior, wouldn’t be as simple as it seems. As the first generation of fundamentalist college leaders lamented, a central principle of mainstream higher education has been the notion that students themselves must be in charge of their decisions.

To make any real change in the deadly culture at many frats, mainstream college leaders would need to make big changes in the way they see their role. Like fundamentalist colleges and their evangelical heirs, mainstream schools would need to insist on their roles as moral guardians.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a false dilemma and a terrible way to frame a question about freedom. Colleges like Wheaton and Bob Jones have experienced their share of moral travesties too. They don’t compare with UVA or Penn State, but Baylor does.

    When you compare apples to apples, are Christian colleges really more healthy and morally grounded than comparable non-fundamentalist dry campuses without fraternities and sororities? Does whatever happens at off campus parties not count as part of a college’s culture? Can we praise the moral rectitude of colleges that try to pray the gay away, or failing that, expel them?

    Some members of conservative Christian college communities act out in ways seem to reflect excesses common to the social mainstream. Others go undetected in abuse and predation that’s more common to male authority-worshipping religious enclaves with a lot of trusting, naive people and institutionalized gender inequality. From where I sit the most conservative schools seem to fail at being innocent as doves and as wise at serpents. It’s that old Miltonian paradox — innocence without experience and knowledge is no virtue but a danger to itself and others.

    The best communities of learning like the best families and places to live are ones where exploration, challenge, creativity, questioning, and some degree of transgression of boundaries is tolerated, even encouraged, within a context of care and concern, especially for young adults.

    It’s not true that non-religious colleges and universities have completely abdicated this obligation, but where they have it is no better to abdicate it by imposing a system of rules and punishments so unrealistically concerned with purity it rewards those who don’t get caught and most often punishes those who get hurt.


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