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(Ian McAlpine/The Canadian Press)
(Ian McAlpine/The Canadian Press)

Russell Smith

‘School spirit’ is pointless – it’s time to end the frosh-week tradition Add to ...

The chants humorously suggesting raping young girls, that caused outrage at frosh-week events last week on both coasts – at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver – are misogynistic. They are also stupid and boring, like so much enforced frosh-week hilarity. Misogyny is not the only problem in frosh weeks at schools around the country: Misogyny is only part of frosh week’s larger idiocy.

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Frosh-week silliness, including all the chanting and all the teasing and the all-in-good-fun hazing, including “school spirit” itself, is anti-intellectual: It’s against every quality that universities are supposed to instill. No university needs “school spirit.” No university needs frosh-week bonding exercises. It’s time to end the tradition.

I have miserable memories of this. I went to Queen’s – a fine university with the proudly stupidest frosh week in the country. This was, when I was there, supposed to be somehow evidence of a higher social class. Queen’s has always tolerated and even encouraged an authoritarian student indoctrination process similar to what military units use. The grownups of the administration turn a blind or a winking eye to the well-organized routines of the student organizations, who harass teenage new arrivals with all the well-known cult techniques: enforced sleeplessness, hours of chanting, erasure of individual identity with silly costumes and public humiliation.

When I was there, the worst indignities were reserved for the engineers, who were subjected to actual physical harm in the culminating event, the climbing of a greasy pole sitting in a pool of water. The pool had caustic chemicals and animal entrails in it, and the participating frosh were pelted with objects as they made their way up the slippery human pyramid. Injuries were frequent. The idea was that enduring danger would create pride in your school and your group identity, but no one ever attempted to explain why pride in one’s group would be a useful trait in a computer programmer or metallurgist.

The most disgusting elements of the ritual have now been banned, but it continues. When I was there, the engineering students were overwhelmingly male and engineering seen as a quintessentially masculine pursuit (as literary studies had been 50 years before). The gender ratios have now changed, but it’s still mostly boys who participate in the climb, as size and strength are assets in the very rough pit. So the ritual – designed as a test of manhood – is just as sexist as it ever was.

Lots of women participated in the deeply boring chanting and drinking that the rest of us had to endure, though. Just as they chanted along with the juvenile (and unimaginative) obscene songs at St Mary’s and UBC last week. They chant along because they want to fit in, to be part of a team, like most people.

Frosh-week songs are meant to be offensive because offensive is rebellious. When you have just left home, you are proud to show that you are throwing off the shackles of respectable society (i.e., mom and dad). Being rude and shocking and reckless, breaking taboos, is the easiest way for teenagers to demonstrate independence and brave defiance. And being forced to be offensive and scary is part of the hazing. Similarly, some symbolic violence must be enacted by aspirant criminal gang members.

But the brave taboo-breaking of the rape chants reflects no actual rebellious desire. Conformism is essential to the group coherence and “spirit.” The whole impetus behind tribalism of this kind is conservative: Belonging to the tribe is defined by opposition to other tribes. Our tribe, and its traditional ways, is superior to other tribes because it is ours.

What is the point of this? Well, there are two obvious goals for instilling loyalty to one’s school: The first is to create enthusiastic fans for its sports teams. If you are going to university to watch sports, this may be of benefit to you. The second is to ensure enthusiastic alumni donors. Universities require the donations of alumni to even survive these days and a fervent sense of belonging may be romantic impetus enough for lifelong support.

Funding is necessary to learning, yes. But is respect of tradition and group values a useful attribute in an economist or a medical researcher? (I won’t even use the examples of philosophy or art theory as the answer is so obvious.) The concept of loyalty to your school is itself anti-intellectual: Real researchers and intellectuals can know no such biases.

Furthermore, everyone knows that the best students don’t participate in the rah-rah hysteria, even in first year. The best students are hiding in their rooms, wondering if this whole thing is going to be just as bad as high school.

It doesn’t have to be. Universities can teach maturity. They can teach teenagers how to be adults and that means to function outside a clique or a tribe. Frosh-week bonding makes a fetish of immaturity. It serves no pedagogic function and universities should stop encouraging it, even at the expense of future donations.

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