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Alpha Delta Phi

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When I was very small, I was fascinated by organizations.

I think it was the formalities of organizations that I liked–orders of nuns, for instance, and the Girl Scouts with their ranks and badges, and college sororities.

I even invented a couple of them, including something I named the Nancy Drew Detective Club, which I based on a book about detective techniques put out by the same publisher, and another one–that I called the Ennead–that seemed to be organization for the sake of organization.

I think we’ve all gone through the thing about how I was a very strange child–I invented the Nancy Drew Detective Club when I was eight–so let’s go right past that part to two things.

First, you’ll notice that all the things I mentioned that existed in the real world were organizations of women and girls.  I never seemed to have any interest in organizations for men an boys.  The Boy Scouts and the Hardy Boys left me cold.

Second, the fact is that the fascination with organizations has not gone away.  I’m still interested in women’s religious orders of the very traditional variety, the Girl Scouts, and college sororities, although I don’t create my own organizations any more.

Okay.  I think about it every once in a while.

Today, however, I want to consider these people


They are definitely an organization, but they’re an organization for men. 

I stumbled across them about a week and a half ago because I was reading an article that went into detail about Theodore Roosevelt, and one of the things it mentioned was that he belonged, at Harvard, to the fraternity called Alpha Delta Phi.

I looked it up because it was a slack part of the day and I just wanted to check,and it endedup being interesting on a number of levels.

In the first place, it wasn’t founded as a fraternity as we understand fraternities today.  It was founded as a “literary society,” and “literary society” is still part of how it describes itself today.

It describes itself as a “literary society” because, at the time it first came to be, literary societies were a hot ticket on college campuses.  In an era when no fiction or poetry was taught at the college level except that of the Greeks and the Romans, young men who wanted to know more about Byron or Keats or whoever it was who was the best knew thing in then-modern poetry and fiction had to do it on their own. 

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this.  College students do similar things now when they have an interest that isn’t covered in the curriculum.

What strikes an off-note are the circumstances surrounding the founding of the initial ADPhi chapter, and what has become of the fraternity since.

The circumstances are a little vague–there were two other literary societies at Hamilton College at the time, and the student who founded ADPhi joined one of them, but he was unhappy, because he thought both the existing societies used “unscrupulous” methods to recruit members.

What these methods were, I can’t begin to guess, but as a result of them Samuel Ells constructed ADPhi and offered membership to members of both the existed clubs, although not to all the members of all existing clubs.

And that, of course, sounds more like fraternities as we know them today than like a ‘literary society’ devoted to discussion of modern fiction and poetry.

The ADPhi web site’s home page say that it has “retained its focus on its literary roots, by attracting only the best students at the more prestigious colleges and universities in Canada and the United States.

That, too, sounds more like a modern college fraternity than like a literary society, except that recruiting “the best students” doesn’t seem to be what college fraternities are interested in these days.

If you look at ADPhi’s history, you’ll find that “recruiting the best” may have had something to do with the organization’s development.  Aside from Teddy, ADPhi boasts FDR and a string of Supreme Court justices and other high-achieving alumni.

It also boasts, or not, Alger Hiss.

And then there’s the persistent rumor that it was the ADPhi house at Dartmouth that provided the model for National Lampoon’s Animal House.

In other words, for all the quirks and foibles–some of its chapters broke off, renamed themselves the Alpha Delta Phi Society and went co-ed–it sounds as if ADPhi is a fraternity much like all the others, where the point seems to be drinking too much and keeping people out.

My question is: why?

I think one of the reasons I so much love organizations is that, in my head somewhere, it seems to me that they should operate differently than the rest of society.

The people who become a part of them should have different motives, different default zones, different beings, maybe, than the rest of us.

By now I have read enough memoirs of ex-nuns, and known enough ex-nuns, I have been a Girl Scout, I have had students and friends who were members of college sororities–

And the bottom line is that organization does not seem to make much of a difference to the human personality, and that the natural history of organizations always seems to be the same.

Where you start may make a difference to how long it takes for that natural history to work itself out, but that natural history always works itself out, and always in the same way.

They become insular and clique-y.  They become engines of keeping people out.   And they become dominated by their least intelligent and most abrasive members.

Sometimes, I think human beings have a death wish.

Written by janeh

July 25th, 2014 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Alpha Delta Phi'

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  1. Jerry Pournelle wrote years ago that every bureaucracy is a struggle between those attempting to carry out the mission of the organization and those just attempting to promote the organization–and that the long-term advantage always lies with the pro-organization people. Of course, Pournelle is a NASA survivor.

    Not so much death wish as a combination monkey trap and prisoner’s dilemma, I think. The immediate personal advantage is in promoting the organization–but if everyone does it, the whole organization is doomed. The destruction is a consequence, but it isn’t the objective.

    Best way to avoid it seems to be to have a short-term mission, whether it’s a wartime army or the Mothers’ March Against Polio. Second best is to be an organization which by its ostensible mission, keeps recruiting believers however many cynics run the place–police departments, I think, and some clergies. But if the organization doesn’t have a firm and single purpose–well, not only is drift inevitable, but I can’t think how to renew such an organization.

    The good news is that I can’t think why you’d want to. Organizing to heal the sick or throw the oppressors out of the country makes sense to me. Organizing so we all get a uniform or a lapel pin ranks with me right along with holding a meeting on Thursdays because we ALWAYS hold a meeting on Thursdays. It may be a common human thing–but it’s not MY common human thing.


    25 Jul 14 at 3:30 pm

  2. While there are many organizations intended to promote something – good training for girls, support for the sick or the poor or research, etc – they also function to give people a way to form connections to other people. It helps if the members also have an interest in sick children, toga parties, or whatever, but that’s not always the main reason. After all, in many cases you can donate as much to the children’s hospital from your own pocket as your share of what the bake sale raises, and without the trouble of attending meetings and selling things. Oddly enough, organizations devoted to this kind of thing, the service clubs, and also a plethora of small volunteer groups, are dying out as younger people aren’t interested and older ones die off. And yet we complain that everyone’s so isolated these days and we need to increase the sense of community….

    Naturally, any organization can have its difficult and incompetent people, but with a voluntary one, you can easily quit and/or found a competing one.

    It’s tricky when the original purpose of the group no longer exists. Sometimes the group resorts to lobbying, sometimes a natural decline leads to it being officially shut down by the last members. I think the group best known in my childhood for providing information about TB and support for victims is now doing the same, in a small way, for victims of other lung ailments now that TB is no longer endemic locally. If endemic is the right word – so common that an entire hospital existed to treat patients, and travelling X-ray machines and vaccination programs were sent to every corner of the province to root out cases.


    25 Jul 14 at 5:10 pm

  3. Hijack alert:

    This looks interesting and is apropos earlier discussions in here:



    26 Jul 14 at 6:37 am

  4. The book that Mique linked to is “The Revolt Against the Masses” by Fred Siegel. I am up to about 1930 and keep fighting the urge to vomit. The Liberals and Progressives of the time were so certain that the masses needed to be led by an educated upper class. I have the advantage of hindsight and knowledge of the Gulag and the Great Leap Forward.

    The book also has some interesting comments on the Scopes “Monkey” trial and the Sacco Vanzetti case.


    28 Jul 14 at 7:32 pm

  5. “Were” certain, jd? It’s the one lesson they’re incapable of learning. No depression, famine or massacre can convince them the ruling class should have less power–only that it should be wiser and more benevolent–less like all the ones so far, and more like the one to come.

    Other slogans come and go, but engraved on the heart of every liberal and progressive is “this time for sure!”


    28 Jul 14 at 8:05 pm

  6. I finished “The Revolt”. This is an excellent book. Unfortunately, as so often happens, those who need to read it rarely ever will, while those, like me, who are likely to read it will be mightily impressed because, for us, it is preaching to the choir.

    The one enduring them throughout the book is how little has changed between the liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th century and liberalism today. The common thread among liberals over all those decades is an utter contempt for “the masses” for want of a better term.

    Robert sums it up nicely in his last sentence above.

    Bluntly stated, liberals never learn from their past mistakes, and this book beautifully, and quite dispassionately (unlike your usual polemic), demonstrates just how and why they’re well on the way to destroying the United States. Siegel is no fan of Republicans either, but this is not about them.


    30 Jul 14 at 1:00 pm

  7. OK, a hijack. But Michael F, knowing how much you love charts, I had to get you this link:

    Notice again, bad economic news–in this case, less business creation–starting in 1975. IDON’T think it’s because Reagan would be elected President five years later. I think you’re looking at the consequences of the regulatory state. The more hoops you have to jump through to start a business, or the more forms you have to fill out to keep it going, the fewer people will try. It’s not actually a bad deal for the dinosaur corporations. Yes, they have the same hassles, but they’re smaller as a proportion, and it’s worth it to keep out young, fresh competition. Besides, if you’re rich enough, there’s often a way to get the regulators to see things your way.

    You can argue about the appropriate levels of taxation and regulation. But any sort of long, detailed regulations and tax codes are made to order for the big fellows. If a politician tells you he’s on your side, make him keep his bill under 50 pages.

    He won’t, of course. There’s nothing in it for him.


    1 Aug 14 at 10:47 pm

  8. jd

    2 Aug 14 at 1:06 am

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