On a regular basis this month, we’ll all get to enjoy the spectacle of well-credentialed people in silly clothes running drunkenly around campus and drawing chalk symbols on whatever surface they can find. In other words, senior societies are recruiting.
The routine of taps, smokers, applications, initiations and occasional tears from rejected applicants can all look pretty silly if you even bother to pay attention to it. But senior societies have serious problems, well beyond causing some very minor property damage. They embody a culture of insularity, exclusivity and credentialism, while failing to adequately recognize achievement or advance any meaningful agenda. As a university community, we’d be better off without them.
Let’s be clear: Senior societies aren’t evil or violent. They’re mostly just fun for their members. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of Carriage and very much enjoy it.) Senior societies organize social events for their members, they encourage members to support each others’ performances and activities and they do some charity and advocacy work. These are basically good things.
They are also things that other groups do far better. If you’ve got a specific set of interests you want to pursue with like-minded people, you join the club that focuses on those interests, or you found it. If you’re passionate about service or issues, you join a service or advocacy organization. If you’re interested in building a social network for its own sake, you join a fraternity or sorority. Every member of every senior society is also involved in these kinds of groups. That’s how they got in.
So while senior societies do all of those things, that’s not what they are for. Instead, they primarily exist to reassure their members that they are successful, important people. Being accepted into a senior society is meant to signal that someone’s list of accomplishments and personal magnetism raise them above the level of the ordinary Penn student. Senior societies tell us who is part of the Penn elite — and who isn’t.
In making this sharply limited list of recognized high-achievers, senior societies treat achievements like chips to be cashed in for social relevance. In the process, they devalue the accomplishments themselves. The message of senior societies is that pursuing your passions or helping those around you only matters because it makes you impressive to the right people.
Worse still, senior societies’ very specific definition of success excludes all sorts of people with hugely valuable achievements and perspectives. That’s not to say that everyone’s a winner who deserves a trophy and a pizza party, but that someone who conducted groundbreaking independent research or created interesting and challenging art or worked a job to be able to afford college while maintaining a high GPA, is unlikely to be a member of a senior society.
The membership list is a lot more likely to be filled with heads of organizations, student government grandees and other assorted go-getters — basically, the kind of people who have a lot of friends in the previous year’s class. This only reinforces the sense that “success” at Penn is as much about knowing the right people as it is about doing something meaningful.
The elitist dynamic of senior societies is especially clear when you look at some of the more recently-founded ones that focus on particular interests and activities. The only difference between Kinoki, a senior society for students interested in film, and a normal film club is that not everyone gets into Kinoki. Exclusivity is explicitly the point. But Kinoki and Bell and Nightingale and so on are using the exact same logic as the older, “traditional” senior societies. It’s just that the traditional ones don’t limit their subject areas: They’re exclusive to the people they’ve deemed successful at life.
Senior societies aren’t the cause of elitism or credential-seeking on campus, but they’re not exactly making it better. Senior societies are a set of groups devoted to supporting the prominent, providing networking opportunities to the well-connected and encouraging socializing among the socially relevant. A university community that values these groups so highly, and in which they proliferate so rapidly, is one that needs to do some serious soul-searching.
ADAM HERSH is a College senior from Tenafly, NJ, studying anthropology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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