I am writing to defend Judd Greenstein’s ’01 article, “Phi Beta Kappa’s glorified role in senior rites hypocritical, unwarranted” in the Sept. 26 issue of the Record. After suggesting the article was written to offend, one critic questioned, “Would we just sit back and quietly watch you reduce us to narrow-minded motive?” (“Phi Beta Kappa assertion unfair” letter published in the Oct. 3 issue). I guess I cannot say that this reading of the article was wrong, it was experienced, but I think it is fair to state that it failed to grasp the article’s argument.
If I may reduce it, the vital question was (and still is) whether a student who, by earning a 4.0, demonstrates academic superiority over another student who attains, say, a 3.7 (Don’t get any ideas, I have attained neither, so I ask it on principle). Phi Beta Kappa thinks so. In fact, it thrives on this distinction. But, does Williams? Should Williams? At convocation, President Schapiro theorized a possible trade-off between high grades and academic excellence.
A student might fail to take an educationally rewarding course because he/she expected to receive a B instead of the usual A.
As critics of Greenstein’s article have noted, this trade-off does not always occur, in fact, it often does not. Some of the students with the highest grades also have the most formidable courseloads. Yet, the premise behind President Schapiro’s argument is still worth discussing. It states that it is possible to put grades before education. Moreover, it argues that grade-hunger is not as good, nor is it the same, as a hunger for learning.
Phi Beta Kappa, however, rewards only high grades, and, therefore, to the extent that people still care about the institution (which, as a credit to Williams students, PBK members included, seems very little), promotes grade-hunger. Williams College, at least according to President Shapiro, has, or at least ought to have, a more complicated vision of academic excellence and aspiration.
I think it is for this reason that Greenstein’s article questioned Phi Beta Kappa’s necessity and highlighted the symbolic dissonance between President Schapiro’s message and Phi Beta Kappa’s imposing presence at one of our most sacred rituals.
I hope that Convocation’s celebration of Phi Beta Kappa is seen more as a survival, a look back at a different college and time, than as representing the College’s present values and ideals.