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Tyler Rosenbaum '11: No physicists need apply

Phi Beta Kappa is a prestigious collegiate honor society. In fact, it's the oldest one in the country. According to its Web site, Phi Beta Kappa "celebrates and advocates excellence in the liberal arts and sciences." Its chapters invite America's "most outstanding arts and sciences students."

Coupled with this search for excellence is the organization's desire that its inductees demonstrate "a broad range of academic interests." At a college like Brown, with its commitment to academic experimentation, perhaps that last requirement seems all the more fitting.

However, generally subjective concepts like academic and intellectual diversity are exceedingly difficult to quantify. Determining whether a candidate meets these goals should be a holistic endeavor, one that necessarily involves deliberative judgment, not automatic calculations that could be done by a computer.

This is why the Brown Phi Beta Kappa chapter's election procedures are so remarkable. The members who were elected in their junior year then act as electors for members of their class in their senior year, and of the juniors. The electors are given candidates' transcripts with identifying marks removed. The student electors then have the opportunity to review prospective members' full transcripts anonymously and to make the necessary judgments.

Compare this to other schools, like Yale and Cornell, which award Phi Beta Kappa to those students with the highest number of A grades, which essentially makes a student's GPA and Phi Beta Kappa membership (not to mention Latin honors) duplicative.

However, there is one requirement peculiar to Brown's chapter that stood out to me as being out of place. It reads, "Two-fifths of [a student's] courses must have been taken in the arts, humanities, social sciences and/or pure mathematics."

In other words, two-fifths of a student's courses must not be in the natural sciences. What this means in practice is that students whose course loads fall below this requirement will not even have their transcripts considered by the election committee.

While I do not find it objectionable that a student should take no more than 60 percent of his or her classes in one general domain to win membership in a society valuing broad academic exposure, I do find it perplexing and arbitrarily unfair that Brown's requirement imposes this automatic disqualification solely on the natural sciences.

A representative of Brown's Phi Beta Kappa has assured me that this has not resulted in diminished representation of natural sciences concentrators in inductees' ranks. In fact, 25 percent of those who won election to the latest class were natural sciences concentrators.

Regardless, the fact that some natural sciences concentrators can get through that requirement does not erase the double standard. By the express terms of the rule, a student who has taken every single class in the English, Economics or Mathematics Departments will be considered by the election committee, while a student who has been similarly single-minded with Chemistry or Physics will not be.

I was eligible for election having taken 75 percent of my classes in the social sciences and none in the natural sciences. I know someone who took classes in all three broad categories, but slightly more than 60 percent in the natural sciences, and was therefore not eligible. This is unfair.

The Phi Beta Kappa representative told me that because other honor societies exist for the natural sciences, and because when the society was founded in 1776, it was originally meant for students who studied language, philosophy, religion, history and mathematics, Brown's chapter is justified in maintaining this exclusionary requirement.

However, there are honor societies specifically for humanities and social science disciplines as well. Moreover, the national organization clearly has moved beyond these initial subjects, saying that it seeks to "advance these studies — the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences — in higher education."

No special place is given to those disciplines that existed at the organization's founding. Indeed, some humanities and social sciences that obviously did not exist in the 1700s remain privileged by Brown's chapter — Gender and Sexuality Studies comes to mind.
Brown's chapter undoubtedly has the authority to set its own procedures and requirements for election. As I said above, its peer review based on a holistic review of a candidate's transcript, and not solely his or her GPA, is laudable and represents the best aspects of Brown's academic tradition.

This is why the blanket disqualification of certain natural sciences concentrators, but not those in humanities or social sciences, is so jarring and disconcerting. It is an unnecessarily one-sided exception carved out of the holistic review that otherwise determines a candidate's admission. However minute the actual effect upon students, Brown's Phi Beta Kappa should emphatically not be in the business of privileging certain disciplines over others.

Tyler Rosenbaum '11 is glad that Phi Beta Kappa elections are anonymous.


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