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.

Advertisements

Fundamentalist U: Leading from Behind

Ban fraternities. In the wake of the gruesome party death of Tim Piazza, that’s the call going out. Historian Jon Zimmerman makes the case for getting rid of frats in the pages of Philly.com. Whether you buy it or not, the argument against fraternities was made a long time ago at conservative evangelical colleges. But not for the reasons you might think.

fred flintstone grand poobah

What’s not to like?

As I describe in my new book, many fundamentalist colleges in the 1920s saw fraternities as a danger. Not, as Professor Zimmerman argues, because they encourage booze-fueled sexual aggression and elitism.

Rather, banning fraternities was part of the old-evangelical animus against secret societies in general. In the 1920s, President Charles Blanchard of Wheaton College inherited his father’s deep distrust of fraternities. And Masons, Mooses, Klansmen . . . any other secret group.

Indeed, for President Blanchard, banning fraternities was one of the primary goals of establishing new, trustworthy fundamentalist schools. As he geared up to swing Wheaton into the fundamentalist camp, Blanchard conducted a survey of 54 religious colleges in the Midwest. Blanchard wanted to know how many schools had veered away from the prime directives of good Christian higher education.

Here is the letter Blanchard sent to his fellow college presidents in April, 1919:

My dear Sir:-

I am requested to ascertain the teaching of the colleges of our country respecting the moral and religious matters.  I, therefore, beg information from you respecting the college of which you are President in regard to the following matters:

First. What is the position of the college over which you have the honor of presiding respecting the Christian faith of the students?

Second. What is the teaching of your scientific and sociological chairs respecting the doctrine of evolution.

Third. Are dancing, card playing, use of tobacco and intoxicants permitted to your teachers or students or both?

Fourth.  What position does your college take respecting secret associations in college or out of college?

Fifth.  Does your college hold that the Bible is the inspired word of God or that portions of it are or that none of it is?

I thank you heartily for you kind reply to these questions.  Going to such a large number of colleges, I think the replies will furnish us with a fair view of the present college situation regarding these important matters.

Very Truly yours,

Most of the items are fairly standard fundamentalist fare. The Bible needs to be reverenced. Student morals need to be policed. Evolution needs to be banned.

But the “secret-society” thing seems odd. Nevertheless, Blanchard considered this one of the most important ways to see if a school could be considered truly Christian.

Why?

The danger with fraternities, Blanchard believed, did not come from their encouragement of profligate lifestyles. Rather, for Blanchard, fraternities were just the collegiate wing of a vast network of anti-Christian secret societies. The initiation rites and mumbo-jumbo of secret societies, Blanchard believed, threatened to replace real religion with a soul-destroying counterfeit.

The fear of fraternity life at fundamentalist universities was not incidental, but rather a foundational element of the driving force to establish a new, purer Christian college.