Thousands of college freshmen across America wandered the tables of campus club fairs this fall. Many, staring at the sea of brightly colored posters, felt a pressure to find a niche–to adopt an identity by the act of joining a club, a religion, or a frat that advertises an identity ready-made for adoption.
There is a pervasive trend amongst student groups that caters to this pressure, encouraging members to join by implicitly appealing to their desire to belong. Frats are the most obvious example. Fraternities and sororities do not pretend to offer anything more than group membership: brothers and sisters who you will like, and who will like you back, by sole virtue of the fact that you are all loyal to the same group.
You do not join a fraternity because its other members share your own, independent values. Fraternities and sororities follow elaborate hazing and initiation rituals in order to create the illusion of a bond between their members where no real bond exists. The shared experience of walking roped together across the quads singing drinking songs (to choose a reasonably vanilla example) is less a bond of brotherhood than a bond of idiocy. There are no shared values or mutual respect or common causes which lead to the formation of Greek societies. There is merely the desire to have somewhere to go on Saturday night–the desire not to be alone.
Ethnic societies appeal to the same desire to belong, in a different way. Here, it is race that is offered up as the reason to join the club. Come hang out with the Chinese Students, because you are Chinese! Join the Latino Students–you’re one of us, aren’t you? You are a social misfit if you, a black student, do not elect to become a Black Student, a card-carrying member of the appropriate racial group.
Here, the color of your skin, the shape of your facial features, and your un-chosen genetic code–not the desire to share chosen values–are upheld as the basis for meaningful relationships and as reason enough to spend hours at club meetings and activities. The Black Students Association does not exist for students of any race who are interested in Black history or African culture. Sure, they may admit them, if they’re worried about being accused of racism. But the club’s raison d’etre is students who are black, irrespective of their independent interests, attitudes, or opinions.
Some may argue that ethnicity is a legitimate value to share in a campus club. To the extent that ethnicity refers to a particular dance, or cuisine, or dress, a club could obviously be built around students interested in enjoying that value. But to the extent that ethnicity means a racial or cultural label, it is not a valid basis for a club. It isn’t an interest like math, or literature, or a hobby like cooking or bicycling, or a skill like painting or playing Scrabble. It is not an activity that you enjoy. Ethnicity is not something to be proud of any more than it is something to be ashamed of. It is not an accomplishment; it is simply a conglomeration of the accidents of your birth.
As it is with frats and ethnic clubs, so too with religious clubs. In this variant, it’s an offer of shelter from the cold, hard world, and a safe haven where students can forget they are individuals with individual responsibilities and lean on the collective identity of the church. The Campus Crusade for Christ website laments: “College students often find themselves in an environment that is tearing away at their moral and spiritual stability. They can feel trapped by the pressures of academic life and the deep need to be accepted by their peers.”
The answer? Jesus, of course. “Jesus Christ provides the hope and purpose in life that people are seeking.” If your peers don’t accept you, don’t worry, Jesus will! His followers will welcome you into the flock with open arms, and membership in the group will give you the stability you’ve been craving. Hell, when Christianity was in its heyday, it roused entire populations to march across Europe and hack the Turks to pieces. That wild-eyed soldier with the cross blazoned across his chest was filled with the conviction that an army of self-righteous church-goers was galloping behind him. The mild-mannered student with his tasteful gold cross, tapping you on the shoulder to ask you to attend a bible meeting, is filled with that same self-righteousness: “I belong. I’m safe. Join us, and you’ll be safe, too.”
Kappa Sigma Delta, the Organization of Hungarian Students, the Student Followers of Confucianism–there is a name for the mentality they appeal to: collectivism. They are all of them collectivist. They all treat individuals as interchangeable members of a group, meaningful only as units of a larger whole. Accordingly, they offer students an organization that can give them meaning by making them members of that group.
With collectivistic belonging as the criteria for club-formation, absurd offspring organizations mushroom forth. The Black Economics Students. The Latin American Mormons. The Hawaiian Law Students Bikers’ Society. The Baptist Medical Students. The Pan-Asian Liberal-Arts Students for the Preservation of the Environment…for Pete’s sake, what does being Black add to an interest in or knowledge of Economics? What does being Latin American add to being a Mormon, or being a Baptist add to the study of Medicine? Nothing. The distinctions are humorous because they are arbitrary.
Not all clubs are this way. There is a clear divide between these clubs, based on the collectivist need to belong to a group, and others, based on chosen values. Contrast collectivist clubs with an organization like the Chess Club, whose members get together to play a game that they all enjoy, or to learn how to play it. Or take the Calligraphy Club: its purpose is to allow participants to practice and appreciate a difficult, beautiful art form. And don’t forget the Debate Team–its members meet to learn and practice debating skills.
The football team, the photography club, the pottery club, the astronomy club–all are based on chosen interests and skill sets that members wish to develop and celebrate through participation in club activities. It’s the opposite of the collectivist clubs. Being black is not a chosen interest, and it is not a skill that you can develop. It is an accident. Being a Christian does not give you independent interests that you enjoy; it gives you a false sense of security that substitutes for the activity of pursuing values. And joining a frat…well, we don’t really need to revisit that one.
Advocacy groups form an interesting sub-set of the value-based clubs. They appeal to chosen intellectual positions. Members of Amnesty International, the Young Democratic Socialists, the Students for George W. Bush, etc., participate because they share beliefs and want to advocate them. It’s a valid form of expression, and definitely a legitimate basis for a club.
It’s just a shame that most of what advocacy groups advocate is…collectivism. Leftist groups promote the racism of ethnic clubs in the form of affirmative action, and Conservative groups use religious collectivism to chant pro-life mantras and anti-stem cell research slogans that do not hold up to rational examination. Groups that subordinate the individual (the frats, the ethnic clubs, the religious clubs) are only putting into practice what advocacy groups–on and off campus–have been preaching for decades.
But the Chess Club is still out there. And so is the Debate Society, the Swing Dance Society, Campus Radio, and the Improvisational Comedy Group. Such clubs are often struggling and in the background, but they are the representatives of individualism on campus. They appeal to your independent values, not some neurotic need to belong. Join them, and forget the collectivist creeps.
It’s just too bad there is no group to explicitly advocate individualism. Except, of course, the Objectivist Club.
Rebecca Knapp is a senior at the University of Chicago. She is studying classics and plans to go to law school.