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George Mason is about to launch its chapter of the honor society Phi Kappa Phi with a ceremony Monday and over 200 newly inducted students. The University has, of course, a variety of other honors groups.  But the occasion of establishing a new and important national organization on campus is significant.

There are some potential downsides. Membership in most honors groups is determined by grades, and while I give grades with reasonably high confidence, I hardly think they uniformly measure quality. There’s the elitist concern as well — that singling out one group of students may somehow cast a less favorable light on other students who, in fact, do very well but just haven’t met the easiest academic measurement quite as successfully. I had an advisor in college who actually startled me, on an occasion when I was about to be initiated, by noting his own hesitations about distinctions of this sort — and while I went ahead with the initiation, the notion of principled concerns did stay with me.

On the other hand, and appropriate to the occasion, I think the positives outweigh the drawbacks. Mason is legitimately proud of its students and their achievements. Certainly categories of activities — in sports, in performance, in forensics — bring their own distinctions, and rewarding academic success deserves attention of its own. It’s good to be able to encourage bright, diligent students to feel good about their accomplishments, beyond what quiet satisfaction the semester cycle of receiving grades may bring.

And as organizations like Phi Kappa Phi make clear, winning honors is also an occasion for reminders about accompanying obligations. Successful students have opportunities to use their skills in various ways toward the social good, and not just personal advancement or satisfaction. So we’ll talk about this aspect in our ceremony, along with the congratulations. It’s good to be able to share intellectual enthusiasm and commitment.