Even those who have not beheld the spectacle of American university life as participants are well aware of its social character. As Hollywood has told the world in a large number of film stories, college life in the United States is a mixture of midnight parties, football games, mad drives in motor cars, and dire conspiracies in which somebody attempts to keep the halfback (or quarterback or whatnot) from winning the Big Game and the Best Girl. Coarse and crude as Hollywood's pictures of life are, they generally contain a sort of essential truth—a small grain of reality from which all the rest is developed. University people do roar with laughter at the Hollywood account of their lives, it is true; but the laughter is slightly uncomfortable, just the same.
The essential truth about the social life of the University of Chicago in 1916 was that of Hollywood's rawest and most vulgar 'college' film. It was, put without exaggeration, just this: that no collective activity of the undergraduates had anything to do with the purposes for which they were supposed to be in the University. Dances, parties, class elections, football games, fraternity goings-on, and a thousand little enterprises known en bloc as 'campus activities' took up by far the largest part of the ordinary undergraduate's time and certainly almost all of his mind.
Chicago was by no means the worst American university in this respect; it was supposed, on the contrary, to be one of the best. An objection often urged against it by its detractors was that it lacked 'campus life.' Thank God it had no more 'campus life' than it did. Even with its heavy emphasis on graduate study, the University of Chicago could not prevent its undergraduates from being blatantly collegiate. An institution so vast, so fantastically rich, so solemnly devoted to the highest possible standards of scholarship and research, was partly inhabited by a couple of thousand young nincompoops whose ambition in life was to get into the right fraternity or club, go to the right parties, and get elected to something or other. I well remember when Professor Michelson received some distinguished honor. When the announcement was made, the undergraduate's comment was: 'Who is Michelson?' Some of us, lofty with knowledge, were able to answer that he was the father of a certain pretty girl. Aside from this we knew nothing at all about the great physicist who was one of the glories of the institution.
The business of 'campus activities' was taken much more seriously by the typical undergraduate than any subject offered for study. Freshmen were advised by their elders, and I remember many a solemn conclave in which fraternity upper-classmen debated whether X should be made to 'go out for the Maroon' (that is, work for the college newspaper) or for 'the team' (football) or for 'class politics.' Fortunately I knew very well, from my first day in the place, that I wanted to work for the college newspaper; it was almost the only thing I did know, but it was the key to all the rest.
I 'went out for the Maroon' at the earliest possible moment after matriculation. This meant reporting, with an assortment of other ambitious freshmen, to the minute editorial offices of the paper in the University Press Building. That august personage, the Editor of the Maroon, addressed us from the heights of his seniority, and we were given various small jobs of writing to do.
The amount of work done in all such undergraduate enterprises appalls me now when I think of it. I was never particularly industrious, but at various times for the Maroon, and certainly for the Blackfriars, the dramatic club, I worked like blue fury. And since work of any sort is seldom altogether wasted, I do not regret it now. The Maroon taught me, at any rate, the formulas of writing for a newspaper; and the Blackfriars taught me to stop trying to write verse. One of the songs I wrote for a Blackfriars show was so bad that sometimes it still comes back at night to haunt me.
These organized 'campus activities,' with their elaborate elective hierarchies, were supplemented at Chicago by a social life of singular ferocity. The women undergraduates had a number of clubs to which all the 'nice' girls were supposed to belong. Four or five of these clubs were 'good' and the rest 'bad.' Their goodness and badness were absolute—past, present, and future -and not to be discussed. I suppose the 'good' clubs must have been organized earlier than the others, and consequently all the prettiest and best-dressed girls who came to the University were marked from the first day for membership. The clubs had no houses or rooms of their own, but they maintained a rigid solidarity and succeeded in imposing on the undergraduate society a tone of intricate and overweening snobbery.
The men were organized, of course, into Greek-letter fraternities, each with a house for residence. Half a dozen of these were 'good' and the rest 'bad.' But their goodness and badness were not quite so irremediable, so merciless, as the similar qualifications among the women's clubs. This may be because the fraternities were national organizations, with chapters in all the American universities; and it was well known that the same fraternity might be 'good' at the University of California and 'bad' at Yale. The salutary effect of this consideration was supplemented by the fact that men, even in their first youth, do not seem to have the same high degree of social cruelty as women. Men often joined a fraternity because their brothers or fathers had belonged to it; because they had friends in it; because they liked somebody in it; or even because its house or its food or its heating system appealed to them.
Such homely and sensible reasons seldom weighed with the women. I believe all of them, true to the great tradition of American womanhood, took the very 'best' club to which they could possibly be elected. The logic of their behavior kept the structure of their club system rigid throughout my four years at the University, and I have no doubt that it is still unchanged. In that whole time I knew but one girl—the daughter of a celebrated historian—who deliberately turned down the three 'best’ clubs in order to join the fourth best, to which a friend of hers belonged. I still remember what a flurry her independence caused in the dovecotes of Foster Hall, where most of the young ladies of the social hierarchy lived.
All of this, which would sound like arrant nonsense to an Englishman or a Frenchman, is overwhelmingly important to the ordinary American undergraduate. The distinctions between the various clubs and fraternities are kept up in a million small ways, the most obvious of which is by dances and parties. A girl belonging to one of the two 'best' clubs would not dare invite to her club dance a man who did not belong to a good fraternity unless he was remarkably distinguished in some really consequential pursuit, such as football. The same was true of the men, to a lesser degree; they were encouraged by their elders in the fraternity to bring girls from the 'good' clubs to fraternity parties. The life of the world at large is snobbish enough, God knows, and the most mature men and women can do equally heartless things; but for the unashamed nakedness of its social cruelty the 'campus society' of an American university takes the cake. How much useless suffering its silly little conventions have brought upon sensitive youth frightens the adult imagination.
My own experience with the fraternity system was a weird one. It is in no way typical, but it does exhibit something of the cannibalistic character of fraternity affairs, and the intensity with which their importance is felt among the undergraduates.