I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a member of the “Junior 24.” Recently, The Crimson’s editorial “What does Junior 24 stand for?” and Mr. Mihir Chaudhary’s response commented on the selection process for Phi Beta Kappa in an uninformed way. Recognition of academic achievement, the process used to honor such achievement, and a fair understanding of the academically recognized themselves is crucial in the Harvard community, indeed in any university context.
Harvard students certainly do achieve outside of the classroom. However, the College has many honors for extracurricular achievement. We have Pforzheimer Fellowships for public service and Innovation Challenges with large cash prizes. Our Rhodes, Truman, Marshall, and Gates scholars are honored for their contributions inside as well as outside the classroom, particularly in the field of community and public service. Many of these scholars even receive personalized coverage in the Crimson and the Gazette. Harvard College dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have been invited back to the university and praised for their contributions to society.
But more importantly, Harvard is first and foremost an academic institution with a duty to honor academic achievement using standard metrics. If PBK students are more academically focused than other students, then so be it. This is an institution of higher learning. Were members of the community not immersed in academia, universities would cease to make research contributions that improve our world. Even though we are blessed with the opportunities to pursue extracurricular activities, probably more than other schools, we must realize that there are other forums to laud achievement in non-academic areas.
Lauding members of Phi Beta Kappa for displaying “academic passion” is not equivalent to “declar[ing] the PBK 24 as the most naturally intelligent,” as Chaudhary contends in his letter to the editor. To typecast the PBK 24 inductee as one consumed by academic self-interest defined by the attainment of high grades and nothing else is to confuse the award with the person receiving the award. Foundations for great scholarship are often laid in the classroom, and academic scholarship can often be good for the world as well. A great scientist who pours their efforts into science classes and finds a cure for a disease, at the neglect of attending protest marches and tutoring schoolkids from underprivileged neighborhoods, has still done good for the world.
Nonetheless, many of the PBK 24 inductees have made impressive contributions outside of the classroom. One Class of 2012 inductee spent his freshman summer working for the United Nations in Venezuela, his sophomore summer volunteering in an orphanage in Kenya, and his junior summer doing research on humanitarian crises, putting himself at great personal risk by traveling to the West Bank. Another student, also now a senior, rowed Crew for three years. He both worked on a farm in Europe and wrote a novel during his junior summer. Yet another spent his sophomore summer working to understand barriers to healthcare provision for the mentally ill in Bangladesh. The previous summer, he had interned at the Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Among other PBK alumni, Henry Kissinger and Ben Bernanke’s election to Phi Beta Kappa and college activity did not preclude them from becoming distinguished public servants. Simply receiving an award determined largely by classroom performance does not imply that someone is a uni-dimensional automaton solely preoccupied with securing high marks. PBK only honors one component of the lives of these students.
Finally, some have accused PBK of rewarding students who have “gamed the system” by taking only easy classes. For the Junior 24 and the Senior 48 election processes, twice the numbers of students receive invitations to apply than are eventually inducted. So, it isn’t that just the top 24 Grade Point Averages across disciplines are given the award. Review of applicants is done by professor Logan S. McCarty '96 and students already in the society. The selectors make a point not to elect people whose transcripts do not show evidence of rigorous coursework. Indeed, this is why students in the committee weigh in with their opinions. Those elected do not recommend “schemers” who “gamed the system,” preferring to induct the curious and the hardworking students who challenged themselves. We elect PBK Marshals from different disciplines (social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities) so that the selection process can adjust for concentration-level difficulties. Over and above this, the committee looks at two recommendation letters. Our professors are able to distinguish between true scholars and trophy-collecting GPA nuts, and their recommendations reflect this.
The hallowed gates of Harvard Yard instruct us to “Enter to grow in wisdom, leave to better serve thy country.” By lauding those who have made effort to grow in wisdom, we are not diminishing the import of serving our country. It is possible to do both. There is no need to vilify the PBK inductee.