Unfortunately, each year at events such as the John and Nellie Wooden Institute for Men of Principle, several attendees appear to learn for the first time what the three principles and seven obligations are, inspired to enact reform upon returning home. How can members, given a proper pledge period and a well performed initiation, still not retain this essential knowledge? What barriers exist that prevent this epiphany from happening at every campus for every undergraduate? Secrecy may be part of the answer to this question, which hits at the heart of the Fraternity’s efforts to increase understanding and practice of the fundamental values of the organization.
Newly initiated members can often recall the entire founders’ paragraph verbatim or a quotation on the “Beta Spirit” from Willis O. Robb, Ohio Wesleyan 1879, yet they cannot recite the obligations they promised to uphold. The reason may be, in part, that the newest members of the organization are not exposed to the obligations until the emotion-filled moment of initiation. Just like a nervous groom focusing on not tripping or stuttering on his vows, new members are usually consumed by the experience and rarely absorb the full meaning of revelations divulged in the initiation ceremony. Thankfully, most chapters revisit what happens in an initiation in some form of post-initiation training. Further, they recite the seven obligations once a month at formal chapter meetings. Still, the number of Betas within the entire Fraternity capable of reciting the obligations would likely fit in a small room. If the seven obligations were no longer secret, chapters would likely make extensive study and discussion of their meaning and application a staple of pledge education, before asking pledges to give their assent for a lifetime.
As chapter members, Betas are encouraged to take out the ritual book and study the ritual, but the basic fear exists of it falling into the wrong hands. Nearly every member has felt, at one point or another, the responsibility of protecting the secrecy of the Ritual. One could contend that in this instance the Fraternity’s great advances in education are still somewhat incomplete in the face of secrecy.
A new challenge arises now that Beta Theta Pi has hundreds of Friends of Beta sharing their time and talents with the Fraternity as advisors and leadership experience facilitators. Members become nervous about slipping up and revealing a “secret” to a non-Beta. This relatively new addition to the Beta family has helped many chapters reach new heights while also making some uneasy about the boundaries of secrecy. With a greater prominence of values-based discussions comes uncertainty in distinctly associating phrases from the objects as principles and using direct language from obligations to make points in conversation.
Many members live by the statement, “so full of mystery to the ignorant, so full of meaning to the initiated.” This is a practical solution for including non-members in values discussions, but often Friends of Beta must simply leave certain conversations for Betas only. A radical alternative would be to revisit what “secrets” should be restricted to members only. While heretical, perhaps the Fraternity should make knowledge of the principles and obligations available to all, Beta or not. A true, rather than vague, appreciation for what members swear to uphold would certainly promote accountability and improved advising from Friends of Beta.
Such a move would definitely change the complexion of Beta Theta Pi. “Completely eliminating the element of secrecy would diminish the organization and potentially the desire of a person to be connected with it,” points out former General Treasurer John Stebbins, Emory ’92. “The Fraternity will not fall apart but it would be wrong to eliminate that.” The past practices of the organization support this point and, in their hearts, many members probably agree.