Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fraternity Needs Even More Tradition

Tulane Sig Ep's after serenading the university president
I love tradition.  I love the spark it can provide an organization.  In my Kiwanis Club, we have lots of traditions, and I’d be upset to see them go.  We sing at the start of every meeting – terribly – but we sing.  It feels good.  I don’t want my Kiwanis meeting to feel like a business meeting at the office.  I want something that touches my emotions and lifts my heart. 

Fraternities and sororities certainly are guilty of being tradition-bound organizations.  Tradition imprints almost all aspects of our identity, from the Greek names and letters we wear to the creeds we state loudly and proudly.

But there is a compelling reason for us to embrace our nature as tradition-bound organizations.  The origin of the word tradition is from the Latin traditio, which refers to something being transmitted, carried forth, and passed from one person to the next for safekeeping.  Organizations that have a great deal of tradition tend to last, because they inherently care about the safe passage of their organization from one generation to the next.

On occasion, there are calls for fraternities and sororities to change or get rid of some of their traditions.  This isn’t unusual for any institution, and neither is the typical negative response and reaction.  Churches come to mind as another organization that deals constantly with the push and shove of keeping or discarding traditions.

Why do we bristle so much when we our traditions are challenged?  It’s because we believe that losing them would mean losing a part of our identity.  And in some cases, it would.

The origins of the word tradition and standard definitions for it may not be enough for us to work with.  I believe in a five-point test to determine if something is indeed a tradition worth celebrating and keeping:
  1. Does it offer unique value to our organization and our members?
  2. Is it a longstanding practice that bridges the past with the present?
  3. Does it raise spirits and breathe life into our organization?
  4. Does it honor our organization, its members, and our legacy?
  5. Is it current with societal views on human relationships?
Thus, it is not the new theme party you started last year that you now believe you can’t live without.

It’s not a practice that includes hazing, harmful and destructive behavior, for that saps life from your organization and doesn’t honor your legacy.  Sorry – your alcohol-fueled big brother hunts or your pledge hell week is not a tradition. 

It can include the fact that your fraternity sings or chants (I love fraternities that sing), but not songs that disparage others or would be considered racist or homophobic.   

It can include awards you give each other, even some that are intentionally humorous or sarcastic.  Humor can certainly breathe life into your organization.  But there are ways to be humorous and honorable at the same time.

Sometimes a tradition to someone else can seem puny and dumb, but even those should not be casually dismissed.  My fraternity held a Senior Wills event each year, in which graduating seniors could pass down wisdom or items to younger members.  I saw men brought to tears over receiving an ugly, tattered, sweat-stained hat from an older member – because it was a piece of them. Other traditions can have no other purpose except to be fun or just produce fond memories.  Fine with me – as long as they can meet the test above.

Here is an exercise for you.  Besides Ritual – which is absolutely your most cherished tradition – what other traditions are sacred to your fraternity or sorority?  Use the test above as an evaluation tool.  Are there any that fall away?
 

Even our traditions that seem old-fashioned can be given new and remarkable life.  Consider lavaliering or pinning, which has been challenged as being hetero-centric and old-fashioned.  Forget the fact that it can be beautiful and symbolic.  Consider this story from Denison University in Ohio about a pinning ceremony that spoke volumes about the women involved and all those surrounding them.


As long as traditions meet the standards above, there’s plenty of room for more.  Let’s continue to find ways to take the best of what we are and who we are, and share that with others.  After all, that’s our finest tradition.


 

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