It being a slow news day, here’s another offering from my archives. But first, a little background.
A friend of mine is pursuing a second college degree and recently received an offer to join the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. I’d never heard of this and thought maybe it was a misspelling of Phi Beta Kappa. Either that or some kind of scam. A quick online search put that question to rest (it’s apparently legit, even if it’s obscure). This reminded me of a similar offer I received over thirty years ago to join the Golden Key Honour Society. I’d never heard of that one either, and in those days there was no Internet with which to vet such things. Figuring it was probably some kind of hustle, but also holding out some vague hope I could apply for membership without risking any money, I wrote them the letter below. You will find it’s very snotty indeed, but in my defense a) I was just a belligerent young man, well within spec for a college kid, and b) the offer really did look fraudulent, so why be polite?
A snotty letter – March, 1992
Dr. Patricia T—
Golden Key National Honour Society
1189 Ponce de Leon Ave
Atlanta, GA 30306
Dear Dr. T—,
First, the bad news: I am not enclosing a check for $45. However, I think you will see that I’m enclosing something even more exciting: my completed application for membership in your National Honour Society. I think you’re going to like what you see. Because here’s the thing: I’m not just any other Golden Key nominee. And that’s not just because I’m refusing to pay.
It would be a shame if this letter were thrown away according to some mail handling routine, much like that which surely leads to most of your offer letters being thrown out with the junk mail. That’s what happened to the first offer you sent me; I almost didn’t even note the name above the return address. But I’m giving you a second chance, so I hope you’ll give me one too.
This time around, impressed at your tenacity, I took the offer letter to my roommate M—, a current Ph.D. student with a master’s in mechanical engineering, to see if he’d heard of your Society. “Don’t do it—it’s a racket,” he said. “They just want your money.” I gather he hasn’t heard of you, and I haven’t either. So how do I know you’re not just some shell organization cashing suckers’ checks? That’s when I hit upon this offer to sign up as a member, bringing my good name and prestige to your Society, for free. This way, if my roommate is right and this is a scam, I’m out nothing. But if he’s wrong, well … your Society and I can help propel each other to dizzying new heights. Together.
But before I got too carried away, I figured I’d better address the pamphlet you enclosed, in which you declared, “Golden Key provides recognition … prestige … scholarships … fellowship … service.” That seems like a lot of value for just $45 … but bear with me, because I think in each of these categories I bring more to the table than just $45. (Which, I hasten to remind you, I’m not bringing to the table.)
Recognition: This must be the big one, because it’s in boldface heading up the entire pamphlet, along with the statement ,“You are the very best.” At first I was like, wait—me? The very best? But then I thought, hang on a second, only one person can be the very best, and you are surely sending this to thousands of students. So I guess what you mean is, I’m among the very best. But that’s still a pretty wide category, particularly considering that neither my roommate nor I have ever heard of your Society. So maybe all your offer recipients are in, say, the top third or so. But I’m not just any candidate: I’ve already been offered, and have accepted, membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society, which everybody has heard of. So I’m not just your run-of-the-mill candidate! Imagine how I could elevate your profile! And consider this: if you will waive your membership fee, and I end up one day printing special stationery listing the honor societies I’m a member of, I will consider putting Golden Key at the top of that list.
Prestige: To be honest, I’m kind of struggling with how prestige is different from recognition. I guess recognition is just attention or favorable notice, whereas prestige represents the level of respect that can be granted or observed. If this is the case, does that mean lesser students get a Pewter Key and a brochure that says “You’re pretty darn good”? And are there higher levels, like Platinum Key, and if so, why wasn’t I offered that? And even if I’m at your top tier, why “Golden”? Why not Gold Key? Let’s face it, “golden” sounds a little second tier. (Gold is money. Golden is margarine.) But once again, I’ll accept this honor, if (and only if) it’s free. One more thing, on this financial note: instead of charging members, what about corporate sponsorship? To avoid shelling out any money, I would happily tout my status as, say, a Pentel Golden Key member (though if Pentel goes on my stationery I will expect royalties).
Scholarships: Okay, now we’re talking … a little quid pro quo, am I right? This was certainly the most alluring bait for me, until I paused to consider that I’m already a senior. It’s a little late to have my undergraduate education paid for. As for grad school, why would either of us want me to do that? Surely you want your members to be captains of industry, getting out there and making it big, not moldering away in some campus library, growing increasingly bitter and getting nowhere on their dissertations. And as you may know, I’m an English major, which means in grad school I’d have to focus on the critical literary theory of the moment, which is eggheads like Derrida blathering on about how “the concept of structure and even the word ‘structure’ itself are as old as the episteme—that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy—and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the episteme plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement.” You couldn’t pay me enough to suffer through several years of that, and what’s more, you probably wouldn’t.
Fellowship: I’m all for fellowship, but if I’ve never even heard of the Golden Key Honor Society—oh, I’m sorry, Honour Society—then how am I going to meet up with other members? Is there like a clubhouse or something? Your pamphlet doesn’t go into this, so I’m suspecting this is more of a metaphorical feeling of fellowship, which is all well and good except I’m going to graduate soon and need to get a job, so an abstract concept like “metaphorical fellowship” is kind of a sore subject at the moment.
Service: I’m just going to be honest here: this one makes me nervous. The last time I encountered the nexus between an honor society and service was when I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school. I guess that Society knew that teenagers didn’t have a lot of money to throw at membership fees, so they took it out of us in forced labor. We were required to volunteer some number of hours per week fundraising, which meant selling doughnuts to our classmates before school. I wasn’t even a coffee achiever, so those early mornings were a drag, plus it dawned on me (get it?) that there’s really nothing honorable about selling junk food to teenagers. So I refused to put the time in, and was eventually kicked out of that Society. For some reason, what rankled the most was how many chances they gave me before finally terminating me. It was like a slow, wasting death. I don’t wish to go through that again so let’s just drop this whole Service thing right now, okay? Along with the membership fee.
I hope I’ve made a compelling case for non-paid membership in the Golden Key Honour Society. And if I haven’t, well, you haven’t even gotten to the good part yet: enclosed is my completed Member Profile Form! Not to blow my own horn or anything (since that’s your job, after all), I think it’s gonna knock your socks off. I look forward to hearing from you soon!
UC Berkeley Class of ‘92
So did I ever hear back from the Golden Key folks? In fact I did. I received what appeared to be a personal letter, the gist of which was, “We regret that we cannot waive the fee, but you really should join anyway, and since we already have your Membership Profile Form, all we need now is the money so please send it right away.” I didn’t.