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March 17, 1988 - Image 30

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The Michigan Daily, 1988-03-17

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Showing their colors but staying hush-hush: Society logos decorate the Virginia campus
They've Got a Secret
Honorary societies keep anointing new elites, but
now they seem to matter mainly to themselves

One evening last spring 16 Yale juniors
were led, blindfolded, to a tomblike
building, where they were ordered to
sing, answer stupid questions and do the
limbo. "It was optional to drink. I did," says
senior Betsy, who recalled the secret rites
on condition she remain anonymous.
When the blindfolds came off, the chosen
few found themselves in a long, narrow
room with benches along the walls. Flicker-
ing candles cast long shadows, and bronze
cobras coiled from an altar draped in red
velvet. In an elaborate ceremony, the new-
comers were welcomed into Book and
Snake, one of 13 secret societies at Yale. It
was "silly and fun," Betsy reports.
With varying degrees of mumbo jumbo,
secret societies will perpetuate them-
selves this spring at universities nation-
wide. Self-anointed elites have been
practicing arcane rituals since human be-
ings first gathered in groups, and they
have been a part of campus life at least
since 1776 when the then secretive Phi
Beta Kappa was founded at The College of
William and Mary. Although they share
some customs with fraternities and soror-
ities, most secret societies are local and
restricted to upperclassmen. Many seem

to fit one of three categories: primarily
social, such as Skull and Keys at the Uni-
versity of California, Berkeley; honorary,
rewarding academic and extracurricular
achievement, like the Friars at the Uni-
versity of Texas in Austin; activist, per-
forming philanthropies, like Virginia's
Seven Society. The importance attached
to the societies appears to correlate al-
most precisely with their membership.
"They're only a factor if you belong to
one," says Virginia senior Beth Peck.
Why do people join? "It's a place they can
Passing luster: Berkeley Golden Bear pin
JACQUESCHENET-NEWSWEEK

go and feel superior," says Yale senior
Liese Klein. A perceived privilege appears
to be alumni contacts: journalist Bob
Woodward was a member of Book and
Snake, cartoonist Berke Breathed was a
Friar and Earl Warren was a member of
Skull and Keys. Some members doubt the
value of the ties. "No one's ever given me a
job because of it, and I don't expect they
will," says law student Meg Brooks, who
met fellow Friars while working in the
Texas Legislature. The inherent snobbery
can even trouble members: the Yale sen-
ior Betsy says she won't include Book and
Snake on her resume.
Enjoyable anachronisms? Outside critics
complain that while the groups may be
enjoyable anachronisms, they can derail
friendships and inflict pain on those reject-
ed. Worse, some societies have been said to
foster alcohol abuse, "Animal House" be-
havior, racism and sexism. Some of the
clubs have accepted female and minority
members, but there are illustrious hold-
outs: Yale's Skull and Bones, which counts
George Bush and William F. Buckley Jr.
among its alums, remains resolutely male.
No school has more visible secret socie-
ties than Yale. Thirteen houses sit on and

14 NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUSM

APRIL 1988

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