This Saturday, in his speech to the class of 2001, President Schapiro urged us to reconsider our Williams careers. He reminded us how easy it is to work with our heads down, to remain stuck on the obvious paths and to do the things we think someone else might want us to do. In entering our final year, he said, we should take note of the fact that many of his former students had found, in reflecting on their tenures in college, that their most valuable classes were not those in which they received As, but those in which they stepped into an unfamiliar arena and received Bs for their noble efforts to learn something new.
After listening to our new president suggest role models that my class and I might consider adopting, I could not help raise an eyebrow in the convocation ceremony that immediately followed Schapiro’s talk. On one of the two most symbolically important days for our class, in front of an assemblage of professors, students, friends and distinguished guests, we singled out the members of Phi Beta Kappa for special recognition, bidding them stand individually and applauding them as a group. The juxtaposition of President Schapiro’s address with this display of excellence in achieving high grades brought to light the strange and somewhat disturbing position that Phi Beta Kappa maintains on our campus.
As an academic institution that awards grades for the vast majority of its classes, it is fitting to distinguish those who achieve at the highest level in that field. The members of Phi Beta Kappa are certainly to be commended for accomplishing what they set out to do, and getting high grades at Williams, despite grade inflation, is no easy feat. My issue with this institution is not its existence, but its prominence and the benefits that membership confers.
With the exception of the Grosvenor Cup, an award for service to the community that is conferred, in part, by the student body, the members of Phi Beta Kappa are the only students whose achievements are acknowledged at Convocation. By singling out these students, the College itself is complicit in placing an emphasis on grades, an emphasis from which President Schapiro urged us to free ourselves. Symbolically, success at Williams becomes tied to academic achievement—the students whose names are called are those whom the president called the “winners,” and they are winners because they did not get that superior B that our alumni role models so ardently recall.
I do not mean to imply that the members of Phi Beta Kappa do not challenge themselves, or that they are somehow complicit in this situation. Even if their intention upon coming to Williams was to be accepted into this quasi-fraternity, one could hardly blame them. Beyond the applause and recognition at Convocation, Phi Beta Kappa receives many other benefits, as well. As I am not a member, I know only what I have heard some of my higher-graded friends tell me and what I have experienced first-hand. Last year, when legendary violinist Isaac Stern came to campus, it was Phi Beta Kappa members, along with music students, who accompanied him to lunch at Mt. Hope and dinner and discussion at the faculty club. Is the implication that those students with the best grade point average are somehow best equipped to appreciate Stern’s company?
It may be true that Stern would not have come without the financial support of Phi Beta Kappa, but this simply begs the question. Were Phi Beta Kappa a new institution, and not one whose elitist roots go back hundreds of years, it is entirely inconceivable that their presence on campus would be tolerated. However, those roots are planted so deeply into our community that in my own Convocation ceremony I am asked to applaud those who have achieved in a way that I do not consider of paramount importance or particular relevance to one’s character, intellectual or otherwise. I mean no disrespect to my friends and colleagues in Phi Beta Kappa. All I suggest is that the vision proposed by our new president is one that should be central to our experience at Williams, and one that Phi Beta Kappa does nothing to support.