The Harvard Chapter of academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa has been celebrating academic excellence since it admitted four juniors in 1781. Its alumni include such notables as Walter Lippmann, class of 1910, Henry A. Kissinger ’50, Ben S. Bernanke ’74, and John H. Updike ’54. Last Thursday, the Harvard chapter of PBK announced the names of this year’s “Junior 24.” While about 10 percent of each graduating class is ultimately inducted, every year the 48 juniors with the highest grade point averages are invited to apply for early admissionto the prestigious academic honor society. Of those 48 students, two dozen are inducted as juniors. In selecting the “Junior 24,” PBK is known to look for rigorous, diverse coursework as well as outstanding academic performance.To be named a member of this tiny group at such a competitive school is naturally a tremendous accomplishment, and these two-dozen students merit congratulation for their academic and intellectual achievements.
It’s common knowledge that Harvard students care hugely, inordinately in the eyes of some, about their grades. For many of us, the difference between an A and an A-minus or, God forbid, an A-minus and B-plus can mean the difference between a strong sense of accomplishment and extreme disappointment. Much of this outsize emphasis on grades stems, no doubt, from the highly competitive and driven personality types that helped most students gain admission to a school like Harvard in the first place. This sense of drive is then clearly compounded by the brutally competitive application processes at top medical and law schools.
An unfortunate side effect of this pressure to maintain extraordinarily high grade point averages is the temptation to err on the side of less challenging course loads. In an ideal world, all college students would challenge themselves to the fullest of their capabilities, determined that they squeeze as much knowledge and intellectual advancement out of these four years as possible. Yet the focus on achieving top grades, not to mention the odd bout of laziness felt by many undergraduates, places subtle pressure on students’ shoulders to take the easier fourth class or the risk-free Gen Ed. This amounts to a clear moral hazard: the temptation to do well by staying within our comfort zones, and perhaps even occasionally stooping below them.
In the case of the Junior 24, however, such moral hazard does not come into play. Even if one started out freshman year with the sole intent of securing a spot in this prestigious group, it is very likely that one would succeed. The standard of academic accomplishment is so high—“all As with maybe two A-minuses” in the words of Harvard PBK President Logan S. McCarty ’96—that it cannot reasonably be achieved by gaming the system. What’s more, PBK takes into account the diversity and types of classes taken by applicants. As a result, inclusion in the Junior 24 comes almost certainly as a result of extreme ability and rigorous engagement, as opposed to clever curriculum planning.
For others, the GPA system and the competitiveness of post-college applications and positions no doubt create a distorted incentive structure. Not that this means we could or should abandon how we recognize academic achievement. For all of the GPA’s faults there seems to be no ready replacement, and it should still serve as a good indicator of a student’s academic achievement. It is important, rather, to recognize that the ultimate prize of a Harvard education is intellectual growth, not an impressive three-digit number. Clearly, PBK’s annual Junior 24 exhibit precisely the academic passion that we ought to celebrate at Harvard.