Heroic Fraternities: How College Men Can Save Universities and America
By Anthony B. Bradley.
Wipf and Stock, 2023.
Paperback, 222 pages, $30.
Reviewed by Jared Zimmerer.
“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
― G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain
We are, without a doubt, in hard times. From economics to religion, politics to family life, the long-standing institutional norms have broken into self-referential options without any sense of direction. The ordered cosmos has unraveled and left the natives restless. Within this anxiety, young men have been robbed of what their masculinity is supposed to give: purpose. Warren Farrell explains in The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It that the many tragedies men commit today—mass shootings, violent crime, and suicide—are attributable to the “purpose void” in which they find themselves. As Anthony Bradley writes in Heroic Fraternities, “Too many young men have no idea why their life matters beyond getting a job and making money.” Due to the recent history of male behavior, the crisis of missing fathers, and the cultural shift away from the constant threat of danger to family or tribe, young boys have been given no clear direction in this significant evolutionary turn. Bradley believes, and I heartily agree, that we need to take a hard look at the institutional opportunities that still exist to encourage boys to become men of heroic virtue. One of those organizations is the classic Greek fraternity.
One would be hard-pressed to find many people defending the college “frat” today. In recent decades, numerous stories have exposed an undercurrent of malicious behavior in the “frat boy” world. Rape, life-threatening hazing, racism, and other serious problems have led to a call to abolish Greek life. However, Bradley offers a different perspective. Without ignoring the real issues (he starts the book by taking them head-on), he firmly believes that fraternities offer “an outstanding opportunity to provide a realistic solution.” He distinguishes between the sickness of frat boy culture and the fraternity that calls men to a higher sense of purpose and meaning. The “Peter Pan” fraternity of “disordered masculinity” usually has a combination of traits of three types of men: self-serving, self-centered, and self-preserving. This hyper-focus on the self is the opposite of the traditional role of masculinity.
Dr. Leonard Sax, the author of Boys Adrift, shares stories of the native Americans and many other tribes around the world in which a boy was not considered a man until he physically, emotionally, and spiritually manifested a higher sense of being a man as responsible for the thriving of the larger tribe. Often, boys would be kidnapped from their mothers, sent to the woods, and not allowed back into the community until they had a transcendent spiritual experience or returned with a wolf over their shoulders. Other tribes would mark the young man by burning or cutting them to remind them that their life is not their own – they now belong to the tribe as a source of strength and survival. The self only existed insofar as you were part of the community at large. These initiation rituals, in which the elder men of the community would provide a sense of being, or at least a sense of belonging, have been all but forgotten. With the lack of any structural normative formation, the missing father crisis, and the purpose void, is there any wonder why boys are growing up “disordered”? Bradley fully understands the many crises facing young men and weaves a narrative emphasizing the need for institutional, guided moments of making a boy into a man.
In Chapter 3, he reflects on the original purpose of the fraternity. He states that in the wake of the industrial revolution, in a time of rapid “social, educational, and professional change, fraternities provided American men with networks, ideas, friends, and allies.” In other words, there was a two-fold purpose to the fraternity – education and camaraderie. Through these relationships and opportunities, men could compete healthily with one another, hold each other to a higher standard of excellence, encourage each other to take calculated risks, and, on a very practical level, gain economically advantageous connections with people who they might never have had opportunity to meet otherwise. They instilled confidence, intelligence, and the hope for a high moral standard. Sadly, as Chapter 4 explains, the “Frat Film” genre hit the scenes and the perception of what goes on in fraternities took a major turn for the worse. The young men entering fraternities now expected an eternal party, drunken escapades, and consequence-free bad decisions. Aside from frat film, you also had films attacking the very idea of fraternities, displaying them as manipulative and dark. This is an interesting case of the moral imagination of an audience formed in the disordered passions and an attack on institutional norms through the creation of art.
Bradley then dives even deeper into the crises facing the modern, disordered frat: alcoholism, out-of-control hazing, sexual assault, and racial abuse. By tackling these issues head-on, Bradley does an excellent job of explaining that he completely sees the problems, and only then can we also see the great worth that fraternal societies can also offer when done right. He argues that, with those issues in full view, the idea of abolishing Greek life is not a solution to the serious crisis facing young men. If anything, they need more brotherhood, more acceptance, more heroic character formation. The best fraternities offer young men the same opportunities as the original intention did, but with an eye to the modern issues facing their pledges. Fraternities can be places where young men are encouraged to look at their vices and addictions, and through their brothers, grow to become virtuous. Breaking free from things like pornography, sugar, social media, laziness, drugs, alcohol, and any other vice holding them back from being the man they ought to become, with the backing of his brothers to live a life of self-mastery and self-control. Alongside the personal, moral growth, are chances to become better businessmen, leaders, orators, and eventual husbands and fathers. To me, this is the strongest case for why we should not close the doors of fraternities, but rather, take an active role in steering them towards what will give them fulfillment, purpose, and heroic virtue.
I have followed the work of Anthony Bradley for some time, and I must say this level of research and presentation is the usual, high-quality social academic work I have come to expect. However, something that became very clear through this work is that Bradley truly does have a heart for these men and their concerns. So often sociologists offer cold, calculated risk-assessments without peering into the nature of the human person, their God-given needs, and how it is that society can bolster the surrounding culture to guide those needs to their utmost. We need strong men to help us out of the hard times we currently find ourselves in and I would give heavy support towards the kinds of men Bradley is proposing through the work of heroic fraternal brotherhood. Men who do not use their strength to their own self-aggrandizement, but those who put their strength on the line for the most vulnerable in our society. Men who have tested their virtue against the metal of their elders and peers and can tackle our “purpose void” head-on.
Jared Zimmerer is Content Marketing Director and Great Books adjunct professor for Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
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