Jonathan Marks reviews for the Martin Center a new book examining college fraternities.
[A]lthough fraternities have gotten a lot of bad press, they remain leading interpreters of the meaning of manhood on campus. In her new book, Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men, journalist Alexandra Robbins reports that “students have been signing up” for fraternities in “record numbers.” Prestigious colleges like Harvard, which has donors lining up to add to its $39 billion endowment and applicants ready to saw off a limb to get in, can afford to adopt misguided and unpopular measures to crush single-sex organizations. Elsewhere, for the foreseeable future, such organizations will shape how many students think about manhood.
Fraternities probably aren’t increasing in popularity because they throw great parties or help men shed their virginity. It has never been easier to get booze or have sex on campus. One hardly needs to subject oneself to hazing to get ample supplies of both. Although membership in a fraternity confers status on many campuses, there’s no reason to think that this currency has increased in value recently. So status can’t explain the increasing popularity of fraternities either.
Robbins has a plausible—if not dispositive—explanation, drawn from her interviews with fraternity members and alums. It’s easy to make fun of the idea that it’s a “tough time to be a college-bound teenage boy.” But it’s harder to make fun of the idea that young men may be perplexed “growing up in a world where women can be doctors, but men still face stigma for becoming nurses; where the majority of high school dropouts are male; and where experts point to ‘toxic masculinity’ as a driving force behind everything from mass shootings to international terrorism.”
Robbins isn’t naive. As we’ll see, she paints a picture of fraternities that will drive parents to new achievements in hyperventilation. But she takes seriously the claims of those she interviews, many of whom look for and find in fraternities “the bonds of brotherhood” and a sense, in perplexing times, of how to be a man.