philo

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Tucked into the fourth floor of College Hall is a set of rooms most students have never visited. The elevator and main staircase reach only to the third floor, where a small landing leads onto a narrow, dimly lit staircase leading up into darkness.

These are the halls of the Philomathean Society.

The Philomathean Society was founded in 1813 to “promote the learning of its members and to increase the academic prestige of the University,” according to its website. Over the course of its illustrious history, the society founded the Mask and Wig club, established the forerunner to The Daily Pennsylvanian and published the first definitive English-language translation of the Rosetta Stone.

Some students feel, however, that certain aspects of the society may make it seem elitist.

“My friend went to their NSO solistimum, and he told me about how they went up to [the podium] and talked about stuff and drank wine and I thought — wow. What a bunch of pretentious assholes,” College sophomore Kieona Cook said. “Like, who do they think they are?”

Cook is now in her third semester as a Philo member and serves as the society’s first censor, meaning that she is the primary point of contact for new applicants and members.

Despite her initial wariness of the society, she was won over by the intellectual stimulation she found in Philo.

Cook described the time she texted a friend in Philo asking about a passage in a book about evolutionary biology. It was winter break and she expected maybe a brief reply.

“And he sent me back three paragraphs like, ‘Kind of, but not really, here’s what’s really going on,’” she said. “And I thought, you know what? I’m glad I have this in my life.”

While the specific interests and direction of the society change depending on the makeup of its members, one constant seems to be an interest in intellectual discussion.

“The picture I had [of Penn] was basically the movie ‘Dead Poets Society,’” said 2008 College graduate Daniel Singer, a professor in the Philosophy Department and former Philo Moderator (a position similar to a president), “where’s it not a classroom setting where everything’s super serious, but the jokes are smart, people are interested in tough intellectual questions and interesting ideas. And I wasn’t really getting that through other things at Penn.”

Many organizations at Penn are geared toward performance, career advancement, networking or volunteer work. By comparison, College freshman Natasha Kadlec said that she found Philo’s literary and intellectual atmosphere to be a refreshing change.

“It was very different from the other places I was applying for — executive board, pre-professional — that sort of thing,” she said.

While she did get the sense that it was slightly exclusive, Kadlec said the members were welcoming and willing to help in the application process.

“It’s kind of [exclusive] in the way that colleges are exclusive,” she said. “Not everyone’s going to get in, and you do have to go through an application process, but they’re still extremely encouraging about helping you every step and trying to get as many people through the door as possible.”

Membership in the organization was once capped at 50 people, but the society has decided in recent years to relax the restriction.

“It’s 100 percent not a secret society,” Cook said. “I think the theme and the idea of it being at the top of College Hall made it seem very much like a secret society. But it’s 100 percent not — we’re just obscure.”

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