What Would Cliff Huxtable Do?

Have you ever just wanted to take a fraternity or sorority chapter, a student leader, or a brother/sister, who you know is capable of so much more than they are doing, and yell at them to wake up and try harder.

I love the scene below from The Cosby Show, one of the greatest television shows of all time. This is a scene from the pilot episode, and it’s a classic because of the unexpected way Cliff (Bill Cosby) reacts to Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) and his monologue about being a regular person. In the sitcoms of the 80’s and early 90’s, it was common to have a moral or lesson at the end of the episode, expressed by one of the characters in a stirring way, and punctuated by uplifting music and audience applause. Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, and Facts of Life all had these moments. The Cosby Show mocked this formula in its first episode, and the series became the gold standard for portraying family life for over a decade. Here is the scene, and my thoughts about its connection to fraternity follows...

I sometimes show this clip when I’m talking to alumni advisers because it portrays something very powerful – the importance of raising expectations. Theo thinks he is on the path to becoming a “regular person” and he has convinced himself that he actually wants this for himself. There's nothing wrong with the professions he describes (such as driving a bus), but he believes that having a goal like this absolves him of the need to work hard. Enter his very successful father who tells him point blank that it is not enough to just be “regular” and that he will work harder.

Cliff’s approach is very parental and we shouldn’t necessarily mimic his tone or language. Try the line “I brought you in the world and I’ll take you out!” at the next chapter meeting. It probably won’t work. The principle behind it is the important thing. Many undergraduates only expect and/or want a “regular” fraternity experience because that’s all they’ve known. For them, regular often includes accepting apathy, unethical decisions, and dangerous behavior. If regular is good enough, then it's natural for them to avoid the hard work required to build something grander. It’s often not their fault. They just haven’t been challenged. As advisers, friends, and supporters, it’s our duty to not allow them to be mediocre.

I learned a term in graduate school called “plus-one staging,” and I’ve built my work around it ever since. Plus-one staging means that a teacher should teach to a level one step above the standard expectation for their students. The theory is that you’ll better meet the advanced learners where they are, and the other learners will elevate their game to catch up. The opposite of this is teaching to the lowest learning level. This does nobody any favors, including the student at that low level. Advising at a lower level means saying things like "if it's worked in the past, let's do it again" or "some people are just lazy." Instead, think about what the students are capable of, and coach them one notch above that place. You might be surprised by the results.

This is applicable to peers leading peers as well. Lead at a higher level and quietly demand that your brothers or sisters get to that place with you. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t believe them when they say that being average is good enough. They just haven’t had a “Cliff Huxtable” in their life to sternly tell them that they can and will do better. You can be that person.

We are dealing with the brightest and most capable young men and women among us. They deserve for us to teach, lead, and advise to a level that’s just beyond their reach – because they can get there. If we stop accepting that it’s just okay to work towards mediocrity, then hopefully those we lead will no longer accept it either.

Responses to Eliminating Pledging

I received some great feedback and opinions from the “No Pledging” post a couple of weeks ago. It helps me clarify my own thoughts to try and respond to some of the comments. I’ve written those responses below.

I should have added in the original post that I am looking at this from a macro level. I don’t think the fraternity movement will measurably advance without bold action, such as eliminating pledging. I also think a pledge-free experience is more true to our history. I recognize that pledging works for some groups. Many groups, in fact. I simply see a more successful future for the whole fraternity movement without it.

On to the comments…

I know you are going to advocate for a longer recruitment process in order to get to know the potential new members but from a formal recruitment stand point I am not sure how this would work.
You’re right. Formal recruitment encourages pledging. You wouldn’t be able to eliminate pledging without eliminating formal recruitment first.

More importantly pledging is a time for candidates to learn about the members and the members to learn about the candidates.
Shouldn’t that be what rush/recruitment is for? Besides, I was still learning new things about my brothers years after I was initiated. That’s the beauty of brotherhood. The problem with pledging is that it creates a power differential and a false finish line. I wonder if we ever truly get to know each other in that kind of setting. I knew great pledges that were terrible brothers.

Initiating men and women within 72 hours is a terrible idea. Groups would have to have several initiations per semester, maybe two in the same week. Don't get me wrong, frequent ritual is important but this would just get excessive.
We have a history of being fairly adaptable groups, and I think we’d figure it out. Why is having monthly initiations/Ritual ceremonies excessive, but having weekly social events okay (I know you’re not saying that)? If there are things we should be doing “excessively,” it’s Ritual and welcoming new men into our brotherhoods.

Great argument from the fraternity perspective, but what about from the recruit's? I needed the pledge period to learn what I was getting myself into. I needed to get to know all the brothers, learn what fraternity meant, and what was expected of me as a brother before making the plunge.
I think you can learn all of this during recruitment – if recruitment is not confined to one week of eating chicken wings and watching football. What if you find out you’re not a fit? It’s easier on you (the potential member) to sever ties with the fraternity during a recruitment process rather than in the 7th week of pledging.

You should do some research on this topic rather than making up statistics. 100% of chapters have a problem with apathy? You cannot tell me that came from a credible source.
Fair point. I didn’t mean for it to be taken as statistically accurate – I was just trying to be emphatic. I would add that I have facilitated conversations with thousands of students (especially when I was at the NIC). I often asked the question, “who has an apathy problem in their chapter?” I can’t remember ever seeing someone keep their hand down. You’re right – maybe more formal research on this question is warranted.

I don't see this working for women's/NPC groups, especially when the majority of new members enter through the formal recruitment process.
Perhaps not. My thoughts were focused only on men’s organizations.

Maybe we need a MORE structured and a consistent program from HQ’s…We need more structure not less.
Most HQ’s have a structured and consistent program, but enforcing that is difficult. If anything, better mechanisms for accountability are what’s needed. Then again – weren’t we founded as a means to escape rigid structure in favor of natural human relationships? Now we want more structure? Instead of more structure, let’s get simpler. Recruit well – Initiate – Repeat.

You're not smart are you?
Ouch! I hope that's not something you say to your pledges!