Knox Professor of History, Penny Gold has been reading all summer.
“I’m surprised at how little work there is on a subject so important to so many,” she said.
Professor Gold is referring to fraternities and sororities. This term she is teaching a course entitled “Fraternities and Sororities in Historical Perspective: 1700-1960.” The course consists of two sections, one 200 level and one 300 level which is geared toward students with a significant background in the study of history and focuses on research more deeply. This past year, Knox campus has been abuzz with the question of Greek life. The Greek matter has divided students and faculty alike. Gold presumes that this tendency toward conflict when the issue is discussed contributes negatively to the amount of published material on the topic—academics who are very often college faculty dare not tangle with such a touchy subject.
“I’m still very much in the process of learning,” said Gold, who does not believe a course like this has been taught elsewhere.
As present as the Greek/anti-Greek schism is at Knox, Gold stressed that the class does not intend to sway students one way or the other. Furthermore, the course is not a forum for debate. The professor said she is taking a scholarly approach to the topic.
“We’re not saying ‘they are a good thing’ or ‘they are a bad thing.’ That’s not a question we deal with,” she said.
“Penny [Gold] is a level-handed historian. She doesn’t let personal views get in the way,” said Jimmy Thornton, a sophomore enrolled in the 200 level section of the course.
Thornton is anxious to learn and can already recite facts and dates from his readings.
“Did you know they were called ‘women’s fraternities’ before ‘sororities?’” he asked.
The course includes a patchwork of historical readings. From The Origin of Freemansonry to African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision to “The Greek Double Cross,” from At Good Old Siwash, a short story written about Knox College in 1911.
“[Fraternities and sororities] are often a reflection of the larger society,” said Gold, emphasizing the idea that college campuses in the United States are a microcosm of the country in regards to gender relations and race relations. Historically, she said, social patterns on college campuses changed and grew in step with those of the larger population.
There are currently nine students enrolled in the course, which “is great for discussion,” says Thornton. However, Thornton had hoped for a larger group.
“I wish it were so big she had to make two sections,” he said, surprised that the large number of students involved in Knox’s present Greek controversy did not encourage enrollment in Gold’s course.
“People who are firmly fixed are unlikely to take the class because studying academically is being open to discovering new ideas,” said Gold.
Gold’s syllabus outlines the goals of the course: “to see how a contemporary phenomenon may be understood more deeply by seeing how it has developed over time, and by placing it within historical context and to appreciate the complexity of human behavior and institutions, and how difficult it can be to make generalizations.”
Thornton is a member of the Knox chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity. He hopes that the history-focused nature of the course will help students make informed judgments should they opt to join in the Greek debate.
“If you don’t know the origins of something, how informed are you to assess the current standing of that something?” he inquired.
Gold also believes that even a nonpartisan, strictly scholarly analysis of the history of fraternities and sororities might influence students and faculty.
“This type of understanding can affect the stance you take,” she said. “It’s not about taking once stance away or another… It’s about understanding.”