Review of Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage
Last I week I rode down to the Mobile Public Library’s main branch on Government Street and picked up Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage – Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking (University of Indiana Press, 1999, 236 pp.). While I enjoyed reading the book and it gave me much to think about, I think that it’s a very-uneven read so I can give it only a 6 out of 10.
In the Prologue to Wrongs of Passage journalist Nuwer notes that he published an article on hazing in Human Relations in 1978. Since then, he has devoted much of his career to fighting hazing deaths. Surprisingly, Nuwer states that he thought his reporting would stop hazing just as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle stopped abuses in the meatpacking industry.
Nuwer notes that hazing still appears to be a major problem on campuses. In the 20 years or so since the publication of Wrongs of Passage, he has continued to write and speak on hazing and maintains an interesting website on the topic (hanknuwer.com).
The book opens on a very strong note with a report on the December 1993 death of Phi Delta Theta pledge Chad Saucier at Auburn University. Saucier was from Mobile and I remember well when he died. Perhaps the most-amazing thing to me about the Saucier case was that Auburn did not expel the Phi Delt chapter, but handed it only a three-year suspension. Nuwer recounts that Saucier’s mother, Rita, became an anti-having activist after Chad died. (Sadly, when I Googled Chad’s name, I saw that Rita died a few weeks ago. I hope that she found some measure of peace after Chad’s death).
Unfortunately, Nuwer cannot maintain the book’s momentum. Rather than cover the contemporary Greek scene, he goes back in history to recount both the history of hazing and the history of the Greek system in the U.S. The digressions aren’t all bad, but they disrupt the book’s flow, giving it a choppy quality. Nuwer has terrific knowledge of the topic; but, surprisingly (given that he is a professional journalist), he doesn’t always take that knowledge and shape it into a compelling story.
No Easy Answers
The book’s other shortcoming is Nuwer’s attempt to solve the hazing crisis. His extensive research shows that hazing has existed for centuries across many cultures. Certainly, it is not particular to Greek organizations. But Nuwer never addresses this conundrum. If hazing has some intuitive appeal to young males, it stands to reason that Greek organizations may be only the symptom rather than the root cause.
The book’s close (Chapter 9, pp. 194-236) contains Nuwer’s proposed solutions to the hazing crisis. It’s weak, poorly written, and often poorly reasoned. For instance, Nuwer suggests that in order to rid themselves of problem Greeks, universities may have to expel from one-third to one-half of fraternities (p. 218), then ups the number to 80% (p. 224). There is no explanation of how Nuwer arrived at these numbers.
Also in the close, Nuwer suggests that fraternities should “Keep drinkers, hazers, and risk takers from joining fraternities” (p. 225). Along these lines, Nuwer discusses the national fraternities’ efforts to change the fraternity culture. In effect, Nuwer and the national fraternities are discussing turning fraternities into service organizations. This argument ignores the fact that service organizations already exist at colleges and aren’t what fraternity rushees are seeking.
A larger, unexamined problem in Wrongs of Passage is that many American men are skipping college. Recent figures show that women make up about 57% of U.S. undergraduates. With colleges’ apparent lack of appeal to many young men, Nuwer’s anti-fraternity crusade would make college less appealing to the men who do choose to attend.
Back to Campus
I don’t know why – perhaps it is because Fall Semester is nearly upon us – but campus life has been on my mind for the last few weeks. Or perhaps I’ve just reached middle age, when one starts to look back. For what it’s worth, I was a fraternity pledge for about one week in college. Then I quit. I wasn’t hazed and – given the fraternity’s reputation – I doubt that I would have been had I stayed. I left because the time commitment from pledging was overwhelming and I knew that I needed to do better in college than I had done in high school.
(Nuwer writes in the footnotes that he was a fraternity member at SUNY-Buffalo and states that he had admitted in a previous book (titled Broken Pledges) that he was hazed and that he hazed others (p. 293)).
Too Harsh Toward Wrongs of Passage?
Reading over my review, I think that it sounds a bit harsh. On the whole, Wrongs of Passages is highly uneven and often disjointed. At the same time, since the book’s publication, hazing deaths have continued and the total numbers of young people involved in fraternities continue to be high.
The problem is fixing the fraternity system. Elite private colleges where Greek life is not particularly popular can eliminate fraternities with minimal fuss. But public universities with huge Greek populations don’t have any easy options. The “nationals” controlling the fraternities can try to change the “bro culture” in the houses, but – in doing so – they risk destroying the appeal of organizations that young men join for social bonds and partying.
In summary, Wrongs of Passage is worth reading as food for thought, but you might want to thumb through some of the less-appealing sections.