Intellectual Societies

By Joshua Meneely, Junior History Major
Societies have always been very important to college life.  They have been outlets for various students to focus on specific topics.  Two of the biggest groups for this purpose were Literary Societies and Debate Societies.  These organization helped make students well rounded and able to work and function in the world outside college.  These groups were greatly appreciated by the students, and supported and even coached by the faculty.  These fellowships had a lot of variety but as our exemplar we are going to look at Geneva.

At Geneva they broke down to, first, the Literary Societies known as the Aletheorian and Adelphic Society, and then Debate Societies.  These societies acted as a way for college students to interact across the various boundaries of class, gender and sports.  The point of these organizations was to give students a chance to present their own works, debate people on topics, and listen to expository pieces given by other students.  All this could give students new information, access to new perspectives then the ones that they normally got from friends, and increase the college experience.  It fell right within the college’s goal of expanding their student’ knowledge base and world view.

These societies also helped organize events at their colleges.  They would set up music recitals for their members, and they would organize whole college events so as to further the society’s membership and put on a good show for the other students.  They also helped keep the college students informed of current issues, as the society members debated them.  For example at one point they debated whether there should be an alliance with Britain to defend France.  This happened in the early 20’s before the nations become the Allies in World War Two.

Literary Societies could also focus on a single subject, allowing for a more intense study of the topic.  These are the societies that still exist universally today.  The broader societies, the ones from the twenties, are much rarer now.  Geneva’s societies actually had their final days in the 20’s.

At Geneva, Students were pushed to join either one society, the Adelphic, or another, the Aletheorian.  They were used to further educate the students and push them beyond their normal boundaries by having them speak in front of other students, professors and even community members.  At Geneva, the Societies interacted with the communities, inviting them to their events such as music recitals or speeches.

Geneva’s two literary societies would meet inside halls given to them by the college on the third floor of the main building on campus.  These halls were meeting places for the group and where they held social events.  The Adelphic society received mention in the Beaver County Evening Tribune as a place that music recitals were held for the public.  The article itself listed off who would be performing and a seeming open invitation to the public to come and see the performance.  The Alethorian societiey, unfortunately, was dwindling   Its membership had not chosen to move with the College from Northwood and so had no firm base when it arrived.  It never fully recovered and died before the Adelphic in the early 30’s.  

The Literary Societies would hold meetings every Friday night, where the students would hang out, discuss current events, give speeches and even present papers they had written.  In these meetings they would train one another for the big event between these clubs.  The clubs would debate each other about at the midpoint of the semester, depending on how busy the clubs were.  The Geneva Literary Societies would compete for the Glover Trophy.  The team that won the debate, held by the college and judged by faculty, would get this trophy in their hall until the next debate.

Debate societies, originally an off shoot of the literary societies, were also very important to most college campuses.  They took up the slack as various literary societies fell apart.  Debate teams were built by Intra-Collegiate competition during the semester.  Come the spring, a team was selected out of the best of the intra collegiate competition at the school,  Those teams then went to compete against the other schools in various leagues or just debates arraigned by the colleges.

Normally there would be two teams, one of which would be Affirmative and the other Negative.  They would debate different sides of a question decided by the league.  Question would vary from year to year, but they tended to political, and to be on a subject that could happen in the near future.  The purpose of this was to keep student abreast of recent events.  That way when they went into the real world after college, they would be able to intelligently discuss current events.

At Geneva, debate teams were formed of four people, three debaters and one alternate.  Together they traveled to nearby colleges and debated points of policy and history.  Geneva was part of a Triangle League.  After a period of other debates, with any colleges they could arrange, the teams would come together and the three teams would debate each other.  The colleges consisted of Westminster and Grove City Colleges, both local to Geneva and Presbyterian in their own practices.  These colleges faced Geneva, and Geneva did very well in the twenties.  In multiple places, it is recorded that Geneva won over half the leagues tournaments in the Twenties.

Debate teams were very popular at the colleges as well; Geneva has pictures of students lined up in welcome of a victorious team from a debate at another college.  The teams also tried not to overshadow them each other, one team would be away and another team would be at home on the same night.

As stated, Colleges have had debate and literary societies have been around for quite some time.  The students used these societies to not only socialize but also to learn more.  These groups focus on academics, they focus on teaching people about the real world.  Literary Societies did this by giving people an outlet to demonstrate their talents in debate, or in essay writing or declamation.  The societies also gave their student members the ability to perform in front of other students, faculty and even the local citizenry.  Debate groups gave student the ability to debate other colleges, learn new things and pretend to be the world leaders that they could very well grow into being.

Sources:  See links

Downie, James Vale, “Old Literary Societies,” Geneva Alumnus, July, 1945, pgs. 4-5.

Carson, David M.  Pro Christo et Patria, Donning Co. Virginia Beach, 1997


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