Inclusion Beyond Tradition

By Guest Contributor

“All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” — Toni Morrison 

Many of you may know, and others of you may wish not to know, that many members of our community are involved in “secret” societies on campus. From the leisure activities that many peers engage in, to the exclusive social networks that are forged on campus, Middlebury is not an institution that makes it possible for all students to flourish. Secret organizations foster an exclusion that encourages its members, and elite students alike, to disengage with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Secret societies reinforce many students’ sense of not belonging on campus. Thus, secret societies create a stratified social environment that infiltrates and perpetuates sharp class and racial divides that undermine any real strides towards inclusion.

One of the year-end events for many members of our community is known as the Rites of Spring. It works through an invite-only system where the mostly straight, white and overwhelmingly upper class (or soon to be) male members of these societies invite five male friends to the party, each of whom invite a date. Having a close friend, Brian, who went to this event two springs ago, my understanding is that it is strongly encouraged for members and their invites to bring straight female students. Brian brought his girlfriend at the time, and it seemed most of his cohorts did something along the same lines. For the night of the event everyone gets dressed up in their finest garb, pregames at a Ridgeline social house, and takes a bus to an undisclosed, off-campus location for a night of bacchanalian revelry, at the cost of $50 for every member. From Brian’s recollection, there was an open bar and a band followed by thumping dance music, cigars and a beautiful view of the Adirondack Mountains across Lake Champlain. Though it seemed like everyone else had a good time, it was one of the worst nights of Brian’s college career, because he recognized that this event could only thrive in environments structured by inequity. If everyone on campus could make this invite list, the Rites of Spring would lose its utility.

Ultimately what I find problematic is that this sort of exclusivity comes at a cost. First off there is a class element. A fifty dollar entrance fee to one party is no petty charge, and I’ve been told that members must also pay dues to be part of these organizations. Rather than speculating about the inner workings of these societies’ finances, what stands out to me are their more explicitly exclusive elements: off-campus events and residences; suits and dresses; the financial ability to fund such fetes; luxuries many students cannot even begin to imagine affording.

Secondly, there’s an implicit racial dynamic wherein the demographic represented by these societies is even whiter than Middlebury’s already overwhelmingly white population. It is redundant and problematic that there are many organizations which hand-pick their members in order to create exclusive, white and wealthy spaces when many students of color and students from low-income families already feel alienated by the student body and College at large. These organizations foster a campus environment that encourages students to sustain myopic worldviews that deny the complexities of their less-advantaged peers’ life experiences.

German Philosopher Max Weber posits that elite social clubs, such as secret societies, are the primary means through which powerful groups distinguish themselves from less powerful groups. “For all practical purposes,” he wrote, “stratification by status goes hand in hand with a monopolization of … opportunities. Material monopolies provide the most effective motives for the exclusiveness of a status group.” This highlights that Middlebury secret societies are not inconsequential; rather, they are emblematic of how power scales up and scales down in society, and reveals Middlebury’s position in tolerating and even turning a blind eye to the excess, insularity and intolerance that we see among Wall Street’s most powerful and privileged.

In One-Percent Jokes and Plutocrats in Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society, journalist Kevin Roose provides an exposé of a Wall Street secret society dinner brimming with financial heavyweights. In his account, he describes a brief encounter with a prominent Middlebury alumnus (and donor of the recently constructed field house), who participates in a routine of explicitly sexist and homophobic jokes. Consequently, I worry that students who participate in these secret societies are preparing to become like those in Roose’s description, through their ritualized display and reproduction of power and wealth.

Charles Griggs ’16 is from Chicago, IL

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