The trouble with exclusive organizations – Houston Philosophical Society

“You can’t say you can’t play” is the title of a book by my favorite early education author, Vivian Paley.  It deals in a vivid way with the harmful effects of excluding children on the playground. Reading Paley’s work is like being back on that playground, hanging by your knees from the cold metal bars of the jungle gym, or running from the boys. She captures the concerns of children as they form their moral landscape. And this is a rule she established on her playground. It caused intense discussion and analysis from her little herd of children, and I’d love to talk more about it later.

We adults say you can’t play all the time when we establish exclusive organizations. Sometimes it is a practical matter. We can’t admit everyone who would like to go to Rice University without changing the nature of the place. I couldn’t admit everyone who would like to take the Field Bird Biology laboratory and fit them in the vans. But sometimes we have exclusivity for its own sake, and it is those cases I would prefer to change.

There has been some movement in that direction. The American Society of Naturalists used to be exclusive in its membership, but now anyone can join. My favorite professional societies are not exclusive in either membership or who gets to give talks or posters. The Animal Behavior Society is particularly open and favors talks by graduate students, though faculty that meet the deadlines are also welcome. (Full disclosure: I’m president elect.)

One of the things I really love about Rice University is that it does not allow exclusive organizations among the students. So we have no fraternities or sororities. Sex or ethnicity do not define memberships, at least by rule. And you can see a comfortable blend of students in a variety of activities. Students are assigned at random to the 10 colleges. Intramural athletics, and other events take place between these colleges. I’m associated with one of them, and have been for decades, the rowdy Wiess College. My new academic home, Washington University, does allow exclusive organizations :(.

Among the faculty at Rice there are exclusive organizations, and I belong to some of them. Why? Some do some good, and are basically for organization, like Scientia. Others seem to give some stability to a group, like the Houston Philosophical Society. It meets most school-year months on the third Thursday at Rice University’s faculty club, Cohen House. There isn’t a secret handshake, or secret creed, but there is a secret password for parts of the website (don’t try to guess it). It was founded in 1920, according to its web page as a self-help club for isolated Rice professors wanting to meet other Houston scholars from among the attorneys, engineers, physicians, and journalists already in town. Nowadays it isn’t so hard to get from Rice across the three miles to downtown.

Last month we heard about the tar sands of Canada, saw the damage they cause, and heard some new definitions of sustainable. Last night we heard about HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Beforehand we had some wine and looked hard for anyone we knew. It’s an older crowd, to put it mildly, though I do not think any of these folks were original members. Last month I was tickled to see one of my favorite reporters from the long dead Houston Post, Lynn Ashby, sit down right opposite me on the last table from the front. He seemed as feisty as ever, and I would have loved to hear more about Houston’s old days.

New members and guests get introduced. Some of the older gentlemen introduce their “lovely wives” month after month, apparently for decades, though no one did so last night. Actually, the HPS has allowed women to join since 1987. The meal last month was surprisingly good, barley risotto, salad, Cornish game hen, and maybe asparagus. Or perhaps it was that second glass of red wine that made it good.When we joined a few years ago, a member told me how nice it was that now they were letting wives actually join, that they used to worry a lot about quality control. I was speechless. The poor guy was probably trying to be nice and any retort would have puzzled him. Where is Molly Ivins when you need her? She would have known just what to say.

So, why did I join? Curiosity? A person I admire and respect invited me? Maybe I have the immigrant’s child’s need to join. My father, who immigrated from Germany to Houston in the late 1930s, joined 17 organizations when he was a student at The University of Texas at Austin, later telling me it was his need to fit in. Would this thing work if there were no club? Would people pay $35 for dinner and $5 more for every glass of wine to hear a talk at Cohen House once a month if there were no club with a fancy name with philosophy in it? How about if anyone who wanted to could join? That is more or less how it is, since we voted in the entire list of candidates. And the mingling with people from other parts of Houston is nice. That might happen at other events, but strangers talk less to each other.

I think it is time for me to re-read You can’t say you can’t play, and try to understand my thoughts on this matter, because it is important. Maybe I can make a thoughtful, principled fresh start when I get to St. Louis, though I bet my behavior won’t change.


Houston Philosophical Society meets at Rice’s Cohen House.


I like to talk to people beforehand, red wine in hand.


It was exciting to dine with Lynn Ashby.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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