Dec 23, 2013

    Join a fraternity, get stupid

    A 19-YEAR-OLD freshman at Baruch College in New York just wanted to join a fraternity. So, along with a bunch of his future brothers, he headed earlier this month to rural Pennsylvania, where he died of a head injury in a barbaric initiation ritual, which entailed being blindfolded and carrying a backpack loaded with sand while being shoved and pummelled in the freezing dark.

    A few weeks earlier, another 19-year-old at a fraternity known as Gobbler House at Wilmington College in Ohio was subjected to a different, but equally brutal ceremony, which included lashings with knotted towels. He was lucky: He lost only a testicle.

    By now, the horrors of hazing at fraternities (not to mention sexual assaults) are well known, and offer persuasive reasons for colleges and universities to distance themselves. But research provides another reason: Fraternities make students dumb - or at least dumber than their classmates.

    Most of the research about fraternities and academic performance come to the same conclusion: Membership in a fraternity is consistent with lower grades and diminished intellectual capacity.

    Just why the link exists is the subject of speculation. Here's a possibility: Maybe it's because fraternity members drink so much alcohol? One study by the Harvard University School of Public Health found that 86 per cent of students who live in fraternity houses were binge drinkers, almost double the rate of other students.

    Another theory: Time that could be used for studying is spent on fraternity activities, especially during the periods when aspiring members are undergoing humiliation or torture in disgusting or inane initiation rites.

    And it isn't just in terms of grades that fraternity members lag behind their peers. Fraternity membership also stunts intellectual development, according to Prof George Kuh, Prof Ernest Pascarella and Prof Henry Wechsler, three professors who have studied fraternity members' academic performance.

    What's sad is how far the organisations have strayed from their original, noble intentions.

    The first United States fraternity was Phi Beta Kappa, which got smart a long time ago and stopped being a fraternity to become an academic-honours society.

    Most other fraternities were started as literary and debating clubs, or to promote character and personal development, and evolved into something else.

    Maybe there is a place for fraternities as hothouses for future alcoholics who engage in sometimes-violent behaviour. Because the ethos so many of them cultivate is at odds with learning and scholarship, that place should be far away from a college campus.