The tongue always returns to the sore tooth.

Old Proverb.[1]

The other day I was drowsing in front of the keyboard, fantasizing about this or that, when a series of emails flashed across the screen and jolted me awake. It seems that some functionaries, or activist alumni, I’m not sure which, at my undergraduate college were plotting to hold a 50th reunion for the Class of 1963, i.e., my class. How I remember when we all escaped! It was a fine day in June, sunny even; dignitaries spoke, our parents applauded; and we grabbed our diplomas on the way out the door. The class scattered to the four winds – actually, mostly to New England, New York and New Jersey – and blessed silence descended on the campus. That is, until September; a new senior class always follows on the heels of an old one.

Well, what’s wrong with a 50th Anniversary Reunion? That should be a good idea, right? Everybody can reminisce, get sentimental, and sing old songs? Not so much. To understand, you have to know something about that school at that time. You see, back in the day the school was all male, and was socially divided by where the students lived. About 85% of the upperclassmen (sophomores, juniors and seniors) were in fraternities, and most lived in fraternity housing. The other 15% lived in campus housing, three connected buildings sometimes known as “turkey coops.”

Being an independent was not a high status thing. Which was kind of unusual, come to think about it. Generally high status people are a minority of a population, not the greatly preponderant majority. But unless you knew somebody in one of the fraternities, you were largely cut out of what passed for a social life on that all male campus. That mostly consisted of the occasional alcoholic party weekend; and long, sometimes perilous trips on other weekends to girls’ schools in the vicinity, or sometimes not in the vicinity. At least so I was told; for the most part I was excluded from all of that.

So how did one get to be a member of the elite 85%? Well, first you needed some extra money. Fraternity living generally was a bit more expensive than University accommodations.  My family pretty much was stretched to the limit to send me to that school; it wasn’t wise to make going there more costly.

But for those who had the financial resources, the admissions process was relatively simple. You appeared on campus in your freshman year; the upper class men eyed you for a couple of months; one or another fraternity invited you to “pledge;” then you were hazed for a time, culminating in a so-called “Hell Week.” If you survived, you became a member of the elite 85%.

Did I do any of that? No. So my information is based on a combination of hearsay and direct observation. And all of it is 50 years old. Nevertheless, I think it’s generally correct.

What did I think of the fraternities? Well, to me they seemed to be a downstate and alien phenomenon. I never understood them, didn’t want to join one, and went about my business mostly by ignoring them. Also, I didn’t much care for the idea of Hell Week. Some of the stories seemed pointless and sadistic, and a stupid way to test one’s endurance.[2] My view was that people who wanted to physically test themselves should just join the military.

But enough about me. The point of all this is that leaders of the 85% have decided that they want to have a great, sentimental reunion. The Class of 1963 had “four great years” together and said leadership is “befuddled and concerned” that only a tiny part of Independents want to participate.

That’s the first big mistake. The party planners seem to think that everybody had a good time when many Independents probably did not. Granted there are always things to do at a University that one can enjoy, and there are ways to get out of town other than in frat cars; but, let’s face it, when you’re in the bottom 15%, and everybody else is sitting on you, you know it.

So, to get back to our introductory proverb, these fulminations from the University’s leadership simply remind the 15% that they really didn’t have such a good time back then. And once reminded, probably they can’t stop fiddling with that sore tooth.

OK, fine, you might say. But my God, 50 years have passed! Surely whatever bad memories there are must have faded by now?

Well, you might think so, but I’m not so sure. In my case the school was interesting, but it really didn’t help me much after I graduated. For some reason, I didn’t run into many classmates in the places my career took me. Over the years I’ve had a number of people I could call about stuff, some of them important; but none of them had diplomas from my school. Check with people you know from Harvard and/ or Princeton, and see if they have had the same experience. I’ll bet they have a much more positive story to tell.

So there you go. Some people may have recent good memories about their schools, but I don’t have any, good or bad. So there’s nothing there to cancel out past negative impressions. I expect many others feel the same way.

And what about the people who say, as Daniel Webster did,

It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet, there are those who love it.[3]

My answer is, “Speak for yourself frat boy!”

 


[1] You can find this in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODQ) (6th Edition, 2004) at Proverbs, p. 633, n. 13. It’s from the late 16th Century.

[2] I didn’t know about psychopaths back then, so I didn’t analyze it that way. Today in the same situation I would look at Hare, Without Conscience, The Disturbed World of the Psychopaths Among Us (Guilford, 1993) for some clues.

[3] See ODQ at Daniel Webster, p. 825, n. 9. This is from the oral argument in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1818). You can find the decision in many places, including at Cornell Law. Just go to http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0017_0518_ZO.html For a discussion of its impact, check out Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dartmouth_College_v._Woodward

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