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Secret Societies!

“If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good,” intones Luke McNamara, played by Joshua Jackson, the guy from The Mighty Ducks and Dawson’s Creek, in the final moments of the now forgotten movie, The Skulls (2000). The line is presented as a hard-earned revelation. Though McNamara, a scholarship student at Yale, is at first seduced by the secret society Skull and Bones, taking a vertiginous journey into its hidden world of power and luxury, he eventually comes to the sobering realization, after surviving a series of near-fatal altercations with its leaders, that the society’s anti-democratic tendencies “can’t be good.” The fact that such a banal revelation is presented as a revelation at all suggests the exhaustion of this bit of common sense. We’ve become tired—as worn out as McNamara is in the scene—of the lesson that secret society stories teach, the lesson that exclusive student organizations are nefarious while the universities that house them are meritocratic and transparent.

Fig 1. The Skulls Official Trailer #1 (2000)

To truly appreciate the final non-revelation or anti-revelation of The Skulls requires a better understanding of the history of secret societies. It turns out that the history of secret societies isn’t really a secret, and that’s the point. From their inception, they have remained legible to the public, part of higher education’s official history—not, as you might expect, its unofficial history. This is because for more than a century universities have borrowed the key principles and public symbols of the secret society even as they’ve often defined themselves against it.

As Frederick Rudolph, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, and John Thelin have documented, the first secret society was a fraternity founded at Union College in 1825 by a group of prominent students. They called the society Kappa Alpha. In a somewhat incongruous symbolic pairing, the organization yoked the trappings of Greek antiquity with those of freemasonry, adopting many of the fraternal order’s rituals and much of its terminology, and claiming the key watch as their emblem. Soon after the founding of Kappa Alpha, two other fraternities formed at Union, and in 1831 these organizations spread across the state to Hamilton College. By 1850, campuses throughout New England and the Midwest hosted fraternities, and by the end of the nineteenth century student societies were ubiquitous. In most places, they took the form of secret fraternities, but there were notable local variations, especially at the most elite institutions, from the finals clubs at Harvard (Porcellian, A.D., Fly), to the secret societies at Yale (Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head), to the eating clubs at Princeton (Ivy, Cottage, Cap and Gown). According to Lincoln Steffens, who arrived at the University of California in 1885, deciding “which fraternity to join” was one of the first “socially important” questions students asked themselves upon entering college.[1]

The turn of the twentieth century, however, witnessed an upheaval in campus culture, led by progressives who sought to overthrow the society system. Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, publicly expressed ambivalence towards these student organizations, admitting that sororities and fraternities, as exclusive and secret organizations, seemed inconsistent with democratic principles. Woodrow Wilson, as President of Princeton, spent a good deal of his energy fighting a losing battle against the school’s entrenched eating clubs. To remove the social divisions in campus life under the society system, progressive reformers encouraged students to live in on-campus housing and invented the “student union,” a communal structure that could unite all members of the student body, luring them away from their individual societies.

Early American campus fiction was obsessed with secret societies. Long before The Skulls, Animal House (1978), and Old School (2003), James Gardner Sanderson centered his popular collection Cornell Stories (1898) on the shenanigans of Rho Tau, Beta Chi, and Chi Delta Sigma, while Burt Standish’s Frank Merriwell at Yale (1903) begins with a secret society hazing scene.

(The protagonist Frank Merriwell is kidnapped by a group of masked men, members of the sophomore society Delta Kappa, and under the supervision of a Mephisto he is dunked in a tub of ice water, made to crawl through a piano box filled with sawdust, and mock-executed under a guillotine.) The climax of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (1912), usually considered the first American campus novel, takes place during Tap Day, as the novel’s protagonist, Dink Stover, eagerly waits to see if he will be inducted into Skull and Bones.

Progressive hostility towards the secret society surfaces in much of this early campus fiction. The central narrative drama of Stover at Yale involves Stover’s increasing suspicion of the society system. Brockhurst, the novel’s progressive, explains to Stover that the secret society is “a return of the old idol-worship idea. . . . [I]t’s a crime against the whole moving spirit of university history” (274). Against the secrecy and “idol-worship” of the society system, Owen Johnson proposes to reorganize campus culture around a more democratic vision of publicity. By the end of the novel, the student society is intact but transformed; crowds of spectators (along with the book’s popular readership) gather along “the fence” to witness the induction of Stover into Skull and Bones, a moment that, for Johnson, represents the victory of meritocracy over the entrenched privileges of class, all staged as mass spectacle. It makes sense that American campus fiction came into existence under these circumstances, rejecting the secret society and embracing publicity in its content and form.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that the progressives’ critique of the secret society was itself profoundly secretive. The reformers’ vision of an open system of higher education remained decidedly closed for many student populations that should have been eligible to receive its rewards—mainly, women and ethnic minorities. In Stover at Yale, the representational space of higher education for the first time accommodates rugged, white, lower-class Westerners like Stover’s best friend Tom Reagan, and yet it excludes practically everybody else. Ethnically-marked characters sporadically appear in the narrative—an Italian barber, two Hispanic cigar salesmen, and Fanny Le Roy, a romantic interest that emerges briefly at the end of the novel to distract Stover from the struggles of campus life—but they quickly excuse themselves, admitting their own unsuitability for the collegiate system of rewards.

In other words, the modern progressive university presented itself from the outset against secret societies but it was, in fact, a secret society, invisibly distinguishing insiders from outsiders, the elite from the common. Johnson’s decision in the end to induct Stover into Skull and Bones was one clue that the secret society and the progressive university might be more similar than different. Such similarities were often embraced even as progressive administrators denounced secret societies. Schools at the turn of the century increasingly understood the value of these student organizations as an integral part of campus culture, helping to differentiate one university from another and stirring up feelings of nostalgia and loyalty in philanthropically-minded alums. Some secret societies were transformed into official honors organizations while “tap day” at many schools became a campus-wide celebration.   

Fig 2. Cover for the 1903 edition of Frank Merriwell at Yale (Philadelphia, PA: David McKay).

Only during the interwar period, however, would the progressive university and the secret society be truly reconciled, with the rise of selective admissions. Where earlier in the nineteenth century college admissions were virtually nonexistent—though discrimination operated relentlessly within campus culture—the influx of students after World War I meant that exclusionary practices were shifted from social organizations to university administration. While deciding which students to accept, progressive university presidents like Lawrence Lowell at Harvard followed the criteria established by the societies, implementing admissions quotas based on ethnic background. “When serious problems surfaced and factions within the campus clashed,” John Thelin writes, “the customary response of college officials was, ironically, to side with the ‘college system’ and reinforce the exclusionary tendencies of the dominant student organizations.”[2]

As Stover at Yale understood a decade earlier, such discrimination in campus life would need to be carried out invisibly rather than visibly. Lowell’s first attempt to implement a quota system publicly in 1922 was met with fierce resistance from Jewish and African American alumni and the Boston public; however, as the institutional historian Marcia Graham Synnott has demonstrated, when Lowell worked more covertly – proposing merely a fixed number of undergraduates (1,000 students per class) instead of strict quotas – he succeeded in defining the demographic makeup of Harvard’s undergraduate classes.

Campus fiction would appear deeply complicit in this history, explicitly condemning social inequality while implicitly maintaining it. And this is exactly how Chris Findeisen’s recent work has understood the genre’s proliferation after World War II; campus fiction, according to Findeisen, “mak[es] invisible a social inequality that the university . . . helps to legitimate” (285). Under this interpretation, Joshua Jackson’s revelation in the final scene of The Skulls would seem simply to reflect the enduring labor campus fiction performs on behalf of the American educational system. With its final dramatic indictment—“If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good”—the movie appears to claim that secrecy and elitism are the exclusive property of shadowy student organizations, as though the college experience weren’t itself fundamentally secret and elite.

And yet, such a reading would fail to come to terms with the utter banality of Joshua Jackson’s revelation, which, I’ll suggest by way of conclusion, is the entire point of the scene. You might argue that, in its complete and total obviousness, Joshua Jackson’s revelation registers the exhaustion of campus fiction with its ideological function, the genre’s inability or unwillingness to continue perpetuating the idea that universities are meritocratic. If the point of campus fiction is to mask the university’s role in the perpetuation of the social order, the revelation scene in The Skulls drops the mask. Its relentless banality draws attention to the essential fictiveness of meritocracy instead of reproducing it. I would go even further, however, arguing that the movie’s anti-revelation alerts us to something we should have known all along, that fiction alone has never been able to naturalize the educational system and the inequalities it legitimates—that even at its most ideologically effective the school has always relied on explicit and violent forms of coercion. Stover at Yale’s invisible political agenda wouldn’t have been invisible at all to a member of one of those student populations eligible but excluded from the novel’s vision of campus life. When Harvard asked applicants for their race and religion, prospective students were, indeed, not implicitly but explicitly told why they wouldn’t be admitted. Joshua Jackson’s revelation at the end of The Skulls, in short, is so bad, so very very bad, that it calls into question the capacity of any fiction or ideology to actually manufacture consent.


[1] Lincoln Steffens, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1931), 120.

[2] John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 197.