So Rolling Stone seriously overbid on this article that they just published about Dartmouth College and hazing, which covers the fratty shenanigans of the serial-complainer and bro-turned-whistle-blower Andrew Lohse (who I wrote about here). To give you a sense of the kind of kid Lohse is, all you have to know is that he is working on a "generational tale" about the "secret violence at the heart of the baptismal rites of the new elite" and that, in a fit of drunken rage, he threw a chair at a female security officer on campus.
As a refresher, Lohse wrote an op-ed condemning his frat--and frats in general--for hazing abuses. Moments after it was published, or something, Rolling Stone must have concluded that there was something like the Duke lacrosse team rape scandal here because they dispatched the same journalist, Janet Reitman, who covered the scandal in Durham up north to Hanover to cover Animal House.
I've known about this article for a few weeks and was actually looking forward to reading about it. Dartmouth makes for good journalism--which is why it was so frustrating to eventually read Reitman's piece, a poorly sourced, dishonest, and flaccid screed. The picture that Reitman paints of Dartmouth is so wildly off the mark that it's actually bewildering. For example, when she's talking about the camping trips all freshman take--an orientation of sorts--before arriving to Dartmouth, she quotes someone who berates them as experiences in which people are "hazed into happiness." If you know anything about Dartmouth at all, you know that these trips and the organization that puts them together--the Dartmouth Outing Club--are about as antithetical to frat and hazing life as you could be.
"The fraternities here have a tremendous sense of entitlement – a different entitlement than you find at Harvard or other Ivy League schools," says Michael Bronski, a Dartmouth professor of women's and gender studies.
I'd be curious to know how many Dartmouth fraternity parties Bronski has attended, or for that matter, how many Reitman went to? Considering that he is a professor in the "women's and gender studies" department, oy, and that she never once gave a first-hand account of being inside a frat in her piece, I'm going to venture a guess: exactly none.
Another source Reitman quotes is a female student who claims that "it's depressing coming of age here" at Dartmouth. An alum mentioned in the piece is even more melodramatic: "No one has physically died at Dartmouth, yet, but the system destroys the souls of hundreds of students every year." Oh, please.
What bothers me about this article is not that it paints a fratty picture of Dartmouth College--Animal House did that in a much better way 30 years ago--but that the Dartmouth people quoted in the article come across as so unhappy, which is a far, far cry from the reality on the ground.
Along these lines, Reitman quotes another professor who says: "No matter what your actual 'Dartmouth Experience' is, everyone usually falls in line and says, 'Yes, we all love Dartmouth. It's really a very corporate way of thinking."
I don't know if Reitman just didn't talk to any happy, mainstream Dartmouth students, or if she was selective in the quotes that she used for the piece, because 95 percent of the people I knew on campus loved Dartmouth. The people who didn't love Dartmouth were usually the ones who, like Lohse, self-destructed socially.
Which brings us to Lohse and his allegations of hazing:
But Lohse still desperately wanted to pledge. Since Dartmouth students can't formally join a fraternity until their sophomore year, he and his friends cruised a number of frats as freshmen, trying to decide which house to rush. Alpha Delta, the infamous Animal House frat, was pretty much out of the question, as were the other elite or "A side" houses on campus, since they recruited jocks and prep-school types who "would have seen right through me," says Lohse. In a way, he was relieved. Rumors about hazing abounded. One fraternity reportedly beat their pledges; another was said to place them in dog crates while the brothers vomited on them. Another frat ordered its new members to crawl between the legs of a line of naked brothers, "with, you know, their ball sacks flapping on their heads." A fourth was rumored to require its pledges to have sex with a frozen turkey. . . .
"Andrew kicked ass at pledge term, did everything required of him and then some," one SAE brother says. But Lohse also began to complain, quietly at first, to a few sympathetic older SAEs. Why did smart, decent people who were supposed to be "brothers" have to do this to one another? Why did he need to debase himself like this just to belong to a group? Lohse, recalls one brother, "implored some of the guys to tone it down a bit. No one listened to him." . . .
Throughout his sophomore year, Lohse lived up to every facet of debauchery he could conjure, from hooking up with multiple women to making sure he was the last to leave the basement at 3 or 4 a.m. "There was a nihilistic quality to Andrew," says Aimee Le, a senior who befriended Lohse in his sophomore year. "The difference between Andrew and his fraternity brothers was that most of the other brothers would try to justify their actions to themselves. Andrew wouldn't even bother."
I wonder why Andrew never depledged during any of this, if he was as haunted by his experiences, as he claims? I guess it's because he wanted to fit in and feared the social backlash from leaving his frat:
His goal, he says, was to raise his station in life as much as his grandfather, a man of humble stock who became a wealthy banker, had done by forging powerful connections. "I read a lot of Fitzgerald before I came to college," Lohse says, "and I guess I wanted to be like that, like a character. I took the idea of creating an identity really seriously. But it wasn't really me. I'm just a regular kid from Nowhere, New Jersey."
In some ways, Dartmouth's own history centers on the concept of identity. Founded in 1769 by a Congregational minister, Eleazar Wheelock, its initial mission was to educate the local Abenaki Indians, a dream that was never realized. Instead, Dartmouth became a college for wealthy white boys who adopted the Indian as their mascot and "Wah-hoo-wah!" as their war cry. They also drank heavily: One cherished facet of the Wheelock myth is that he "tamed" the Indians with New England rum. "It's all a false sense of history," says Lohse. "But it's also very tied into this idea that by going to Dartmouth you're being 'tamed' and civilized and ultimately made into a member of the upper class."
One interesting question the hazing issue raises actually echoes the age-old debate between the two strands of conservatism: the libertarians and the cultural conservatives.
As a libertarian, I just can't sympathize with Lohse's complaints, which essentially boil down to this: I really wanted to be one of the cool kids and I even endured disgusting and depraved things in order to secure my status as a "frat bro" and now that it's all gone wrong for me, I want to blame the frats and Dartmouth for it. One of his buddies nails the issue: "The problem with Andrew is he's always the victim, he doesn't take responsibility for what he does." As an individual, Lohse had the power to remove himself from his situation and rise above the culture.
The cultural conservative in me sees the issue from a slightly different vantage point: institutions do matter; the culture does matter. But to blame the frats is to completely whitewash the issue. The problem is much deeper. The mission of a liberal arts institution should be to educate its students in Western civilization--that is, the civilizing mission of our culture. Is it any surprise to anyone that, with the break down of a traditional liberal arts education--coupled with the decline in religiosity among the youth--that the civility of culture itself would degrade? Students today have no moral center, and so they treat each other awfully--just as Andrew, by his own admission, treated his frat brothers awfully--and don't think that there will be consequences to their actions. If there are no consequences, then there is no personal responsibility. Instead, they blame the "system" or the "culture" for making them behave the way they did.
This is the real cultural catastrophe. And banning frats, as Lohse wants, is just a band-aid that won't even get close to fixing the more serious problems.