Scholars cry Phi on the honor society

November 12, 1996|By Kevin Smokler

THE GRAND DAME of honor societies is losing popularity. At some institutions, Phi Beta Kappa, America's oldest and most exclusive award of academic excellence, was rejected last year by nearly half of its invitees. The reasons, according to news reports, ranged from competing honor societies, to Phi Bete's $30 initiation fee, to ignorance of the 220-year-old award.

Not since the 1960s war on ''elitism'' has ''the key'' been so rebuffed. To retool its image, the society convened a conference of educators and students to discuss ''The Present and Future of Phi Beta Kappa.''

Dialogue, said Anthony McIvor, director of public information, focused on raising awareness of the award and making it an active player in promoting liberal-arts education. Suggestions to be presented at Phi Bete's Senate meeting next month include alerting students to the honor earlier in their college careers and increasing support for the organization's teaching programs.

Meanwhile, Phi Bete must rethink its role as America's foremost recognizer of scholastic achievement. Some of the reasons for declining the award are valid. Instead, defenses are mounted.

Because it inducts its honorees in early April, Phi Bete cannot help reaching students after several other honor societies already have. Mr. Mc Ivor accurately points out that ''in order to award academic excellence, we have to wait for it to happen.''

He notes that Phi Bete's one-time payment of $30 brings lifelong benefits, from The Key Reporter newsletter to conferences. (The figure doubles if students want an actual key.) Other societies, he stresses, offer less and require annual fees. And, he reports, a recent private donation will allow several chapters to waive their admission fees.

Phi Bete has missed the point. Over a lifetime, $30 may seem negligible. But to an impoverished college student, it may represent two weeks of food, a month of entertainment or a dent in the college-loan debt.

Exploiting students

Moreover, while Phi Beta Kappa is proud of distributing about $400,000 annually in college scholarships, it has stood silent on the increasing financial exploitation of students. At many top universities, a year of tuition can exceed $25,000. Add to that campus monopolies on food, books and housing and today's college student pays exorbitantly.

That is only half the story. As a premier supporter of academic excellence, Phi Beta Kappa seems to have no concern for or opinion on the state of life in academia. Students will better know and respect Phi Bete if it becomes not merely an honor but a partner in their intellectual lives. Now, it functions as a benevolent grandparent, doling out gifts one should automatically appreciate, with little regard to their use.

Mr. Mc Ivor admits Phi Beta Kappa has a stodgy East Coast prep-school reputation, which may account for the low acceptance rates from students in state universities, especially from Western states.

But Phi Bete has painted itself as guardian of academic tradition. Last summer's issue of The Key Reporter devoted its entire letters section to scolding today's young scholars. Three-quarters of the scolds were from the East and had acquired their keys more than 35 years ago.

If it has hope of relevancy, Phi Bete should acknowledge the changing face of academia. This generation of inductees has excelled at disciplines from film studies to folklore, from art to African-American literature. Yet scholars featured in the Key Reporter and Phi Bete's magazine The American Scholar, rarely fall outside traditional academics.

The newspaper also devotes half its space to ''Recommended Readings'' that rarely if ever include creative works of literature or poetry. Recommended plays, films, art exhibits and lecture series are nowhere to be found. The omission appears a tacit endorsement of the idea that scholarly pursuit leads only to the solemn shelves of university libraries.

But the academic fraternity is going modern in one way. It plans a web page where, Mc Ivor says, ''each of Phi Bete's 500,000 living members may engage in dialogue at a number of levels.'' Common-ground communication may be the first step toward restoring the grand dame's eminence.

Kevin Smokler, a 1995 Phi Beta Kappa inductee at Johns Hopkins, is a Baltimore-based free-lance writer.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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