Why do we need honor societies at all?

The New York Times published an article a few days ago on schools that are cutting back on the number of honor societies they have. The argument is that so many students are in so many honor societies that they’ve ceased to mean anything to colleges and furthermore, students don’t take them seriously. If you’re in seven honor societies, you can’t actually be fully involved in all of them (especially if you’re also in band, on the swim team, and trying to do a bazillion hours of community service to pad your college apps). I can’t comment on whether students take them seriously, but I will add that despite what the article says, the National Honor Society ain’t all that prestigious. If you’re applying to a competitive college, everyone applying will also be a member. If you’re applying to a not-very-competitive college, whatever criteria got you into the NHS will get you into the school even if you’re not a member.

But what I really want to know is, why do we need these honor societies at all? I admit, it’s nice to see something that acknowledges students for their attention to academics, given that it’s usually the jocks who get most of the positive attention and the troublemakers who get most of the negative attention. (It is sad though that schools that spend insane amounts of money on their varsity sports programs can’t come up with the $1200 to fund the faculty advisor to an honor society.)

Taking a larger view, do we really need to visibly and overtly separate the “good” from the “bad,” the “smart” from the “dumb,” the “worthy” from the “unworthy?” Are you really a less valuable human being (or a less smart one) because you only have three cords around your neck at graduation instead of nine? Or because you have no cords around your neck? Does maintaining a 90 average in Spanish really mean that you deserve to be in the in group, but maintaining an 89 average make you unworthy of acknowledgment?  And would you rather be acknowledged for being you — an individual human being with hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses, dreams, goals, passions — or as one of 200 people who did well on a lot of Spanish tests? I’ll take the former, thanks.

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