This account of the history of Greek life traces the beginnings of the organizations that have come today to be known as Greek Fraternities and Sororities. This history was compiled from Baird's 20th Edition, Manual of American College Fraternities. The information concerning the origins and early uses of the words fraternity and sorority may be useful in fully understand the history of Greek Life.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, students began forming their own groups to debate and discuss current events and literature. This was largely a reaction toward the strict curriculum set forth by their colleges. Students wanted to learn about a greater variety of topics than were offered in the classroom, explore other academic venues in more detail than time allotted for with their professors during class time, and be able to express themselves freely. Hence began the first organized, modern-day debating and literary societies. Some universities fostered these organizations by encouraging students to think for themselves.
Inevitably, the students in these groups began to form deeper relationships and depend on each other for more than just an intellectually stimulating conversation. Through the end of the nineteenth century, intellectualness was still the center of fraternity life, but the members also made plenty of time to organize parties, sports events, dances and so on.
The very first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776, and was kept a "secret". In 1831 they disclosed their secrets and bylaws. Today, some fraternities keep their traditions and constitutions secret, and some publish them. When many fraternities were founded, initiation rites and ceremonies were often borrowed and/or modified from any combination of the following items in history: Philosophy and Literature from Ancient Greeks and Romans; Jewish and Christian Scriptures; Chivalric traditions; military codes of honor, precepts and forms of Freemasonry; Enlightenment Science and Philosophy and Romanticism.
These items no longer held the importance in the curriculum that they had previously. So as time went on, teachings of The Classics became less and less common. As a result, the meanings of many of the rituals the fraternity was originally based on began to fade and become unknown to its members. Due to this lack of knowledge, some fraternities began to depend on theatrical aspects of ceremonies, as opposed to the deeper, more profound meaning that had essentially been lost. Some say this was the period in which "Hazing" took its roots.
There are also traditions surrounding fraternity items. Most organizations have some type of badge, crest and/or symbol, that only initiated members may wear. An exception to this rule is the old tradition where a fraternity man's sweetheart is given and allowed to wear the letters or symbol of the organization. It is not tradition for men to wear their sweetheart's letters or symbol.