Friday, January 1, 2010

Too Many Honors Societies

Were you in an "honor society" in high school? I wasn't. I don't remember there being an honor society, although I suppose there was one. It didn't matter, I still got into one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country (Swarthmore). Today, however, they seem to be sprouting like weeds, to the point that some schools are cutting back. Sure, it will good on your college application if you're in five honors societies. But that should also raise questions for any college admissions officer about how seriously you were involved in all five.

But there are other reasons an overabundance of honors societies are a problem: first, they raise unrealistic expectations. Once you're out of college, awards are not handed out like Halloween candy. There are six Nobel prizes awarded each year, for the entire world. When someone wins an Oscar, it means that they were the best in the world in that category that year. Period, end of story. There may be multiple valedictorians in a single high school class, but in the real world, every football team has exactly one starting quarterback at a time, and every company has exactly one CEO. There have been some new awards created for entertainment (I'm still not sure what the "People's Choice Awards" are), and there seem to be lots of "Top Ten" lists, but an Oscar is still an Oscar, an Emmy is still an Emmy, and a Grammy is still a Grammy. The Nobel Prize in Economics is new - it was not part of Alfred Nobel's will. So the Nobels have expanded by one prize in a century. Not much danger of cheapening anything there. There are numerous college bowls, but there is one Rose Bowl, one national championship game, and one Super Bowl.

There are three things that will get you into a good college: 1) being a good student 2) being a responsible citizen 3) being interesting. If you are in five honors societies out of 12 at your school, you may be interesting, or your school's honors societies may have low standards. Or you may be trying too hard to spiff up your college application. But if you made your own prom dress from a pattern in a magazine from the 1950's that you found in the local library, you are interesting. If you're the starting quarterback on a football team that went 8-1, you're a good athlete. But if you're the captain of the brand-new lacrosse team that your school just started, you are interesting.

The big problem with so many honors societies is that they are meaningless as soon as you graduate from high school. I was on the debate team in high school. I was moderately good, but I didn't win any awards. It probably helped me get into college, but I never put it on my resume, and I don't think I've had more than 5 conversations about it since high school. As soon as you get to college, no one cares what you did in high school. And as soon as you graduate, no one cares what you did in college.

I think we confuse cause and effect when we think about elite higher education. We see people like Barack and Michelle Obama, who went to Ivy League colleges, and we think, "If I want to be highly successful, then I have to go to an Ivy League college as well."

Hogwash. It does not hurt to go to one of those colleges. But it is not necessary.

The Obamas got into Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard Law because they are smart, competent, and creative. Those are the same qualities which have made them successful in life. But getting into Columbia and Harvard did not make President Obama smart and competent. He got into them because he was smart and competent. He was smart and competent before he went to Harvard Law, while he was there, and after he left. Going to Harvard Law did not make him smart and competent. It showed the world that he was smart and competent, but there are lots of ways to do that. What you don't hear about are the superstar lawyers who went to places like the University of North Dakota or Arizona State (those are both real-life examples that I know of).

There is one thing that is vastly more important than education for being successul in life, and that is knowing what you want. If you graduate from a small community college, but you're determined to be an editor for sitcoms, you've got a decent chance of making it. But if you graduate with honors from an elite college, but you have no idea what you want to do with your life, you might spend years spinning your wheels. Trust me on this one, I graduated with honors from an elite college, but I had no idea what to do with my life, and I spent years spinning my wheels.

If you are in seven honors societies but you have no record of accomplishment in any of them, you might be just collecting tassels. If you're only in the Latin honor society, but you're the president, and you raised money for a trip for you and other students to travel to Rome to read Latin transcripts at the Vatican, then you are focused and committed, and you know what you want. I knew a guy in college who majored in Latin, one of the least practical degrees imaginable. But he got a job working in the rare manuscripts section of a major library in New York, and he was very happy. If you're on the cheerleading squad, you might be doing it just for fun. But if you're the captain, you practice for three hours a day, you bought videos on cheerleading, and you recruited your friends to join the squad, you're focused.

Most people get basically one job based on where they went to college: their first one. After you get your first job, you get your next one based on how well you did in the first one. I have interviewed for dozens of jobs. No one has ever mentioned the fact that I have a degree from Swarthmore. I got one job because I had a degree in philosophy - the president of the company liked philosophy majors (his father had a PhD from Harvard). But that was also one of the worst jobs I ever had.

Self-esteem does not come from collecting meaningless awards and joining groups just because you can. Self-esteem comes from knowing who you are, knowing what you want to do with your life, knowing what you are good at, getting good at it, and being better at it than other people.

1 comment:

ITF said...


I agree, in general, but I contest that an Oscar means best in the world. Not even close. Best work on / in an English-language, distributed in the USA movie that had moderate or wide release, *maybe*. Like the "World Series" for a team that probably couldn't even beat Cuba.

Me, I was an officer in the Honor Society (back when it mean only one thing -- GPA of 3.5 or better out of 4.0) and one of my favorite things to do was use that as an excuse for an audience with the principal about whatever the latest political thing I was doing was.