A younger friend writes, “I have a question about honor societies and colleges. … I’ve been invited to several different honor societies, but at this point I only joined [one]. I keep getting emails from others about deadlines to join, and it occurred to me that I should just double check with someone about whether there is a reason to join more than one. [The one I joined] seemed like it was the most legitimate with the most benefits, so I joined that one. I’m not sure others are not mostly just money making opportunities or not, so I’d skipped them.”
My response: Well, it depends. That’s the short answer. It’ll take me a few more words to say what it depends on.
Ask yourself why your degree from a college or university has value or meaning. Well, for one thing, you learned something; you’re a more capable person. But why should others trust this? Anybody could give you a degree. (Really! And scams abound.) Colleges and universities are accredited by agencies that do that: they check out and affirm that particular colleges and universities are worthwhile places; that if you get a degree from an ‘accredited college or university’, there’s something substantial there. (And yes, there are unaccredited colleges and universities.) Accrediting agencies may do a good job or a bad job, but they’re there and they’re trying.
Well, how about honor societies? Anyone could start one, and lots of people have. But no one accredits these honor societies to say whether the honors they confer have any substance behind them. So how can you trust an honor society?
There’s an old Smothers Brothers routine (you’re probably too young to remember this) in which the brothers sing “The Streets of Laredo,” or at least say that’s what they’re doing. Tom sings “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,” and Dick sings “I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too.” Then they sing together “We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.” And then Tom sings “If you buy an outfit you can be a cowboy, too.” Laughter ensues. Anyone can look like a cowboy, but no, wearing an outfit doesn’t make one truly a cowboy. So an honor society could be like that, just conferring ‘honors’ willy-nilly. How do you know an honor society is legit?
One test is whether the honor society really has standards – whether they let graduates of any college or university induct people, or whether the place has to be accredited. And beyond that, whether it has a ‘good’ program, in whatever subject field is being recognized. To find out whether a program is ‘good’ the honor society would have to do something like accrediting work – they’d have to look into the substance of the education being offered. Some honor societies do that; others are more like the Smothers Brothers riff.
Another test is whether the honor society does more than confer honors. Does it work to strengthen the professional standing of the subject field in which it confers honors. Does it raise money for scholarships? Recognize outstanding professionals in the field? Lobby Congress for good legislation in matters about which its professionals have expertise? Again, some honor societies do, and some don’t. (Some are just interested in you paying dues.)
Finally, it’s worth adding here that Quakers have had a kind of skepticism about honor societies. They looked to many Friends like they were in the business of creating inequalities for no good purpose. So just like many Quaker colleges refused to allow fraternities and sororities because those organizations existed to diss some people and privilege others, they didn’t allow honor societies, either. Most Quaker colleges have now softened that stance and allow a few honor societies to exist on their campuses – those that have real standards and those that do real good works.
So, as I say, it depends. You have to kick the tires. That may be more trouble than it’s worth.