Phi Beta Kappa Society

Phi Beta Kappa Society


The Phi Beta Kappa Society is the oldest honor
society for the liberal arts and sciences with 283 active chapters in the United States. Widely considered to be the nation’s most
prestigious honor society, Phi Beta Kappa aims to promote and advocate excellence in
the liberal arts and sciences and to induct the most outstanding students of arts and
sciences at American colleges and universities. Founded at The College of William and Mary
on December 5, 1776, as the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity, it was among the
earliest collegiate fraternal societies and remains the oldest existing American academic
honor society. Phi Beta Kappa stands for Φιλοσοφία
Βίου Κυβερνήτης or in Latin letters Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs, which
means “Love of wisdom is the guide of life”. Membership
Phi Beta Kappa has chapters in about 10% of higher learning institutions, and about 10%
of Arts & Science graduates are inducted within these schools. Each individual chapter determines its specific
application of the Phi Beta Kappa Council’s 1952 Stipulations Concerning Eligibility for
Membership and sets its own academic standards, “but in general the student needs to be in
the top 10% of the class and to have taken appropriate courses in liberal arts and sciences”. There is an initiation fee of generally between
$50 to $90 that must be paid to become a member. History The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded on
December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and established
the precedent for naming American college societies after the initial letters of a secret
Greek motto. The group consisted of students who frequented
the Raleigh Tavern as a common meeting area off the college campus. Ten of the original members later became Freemasons. Whether the students organized to meet more
freely and discuss non-academic topics, or to discuss politics in a Revolutionary society
is unknown; the earliest records indicate only that the students met to debate and engage
in oratory, and on topics that would have been not far removed from the curriculum. In the Phi Beta Kappa Initiation of 1779,
the new member was informed, “here then you may for a while disengage yourself from scholastic
cares and communicate without reserve whatever reflections you have made upon various objects;
remembering that every thing transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa, …here,
too, you are to indulge in matters of speculation that freedom of enquiry which ever dispels
the clouds of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth…”. There had been earlier fraternal societies
at the College, but these, including the well-known F.H.C. Society, founded in 1750, were Latin-letter
societies: their names were taken from initial letters of a secret Latin motto. William and Mary alumnus and third U.S. President
Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most famous member of the F.H.C.; other notable members
of the original Society included Col. James Innes, St. George Tucker, and George Wythe. Jefferson noted that “When I was a student
of Wm. & Mary college of this state, there existed
a society called the F.H.C. society, confined to the number of six students only, of which
I was a member, but it had no useful object, nor do I know whether it now exists.” The best opinion is that the society did not
survive the invasion by British forces during the Revolution. A second Latin-letter fraternity at William
and Mary was the P.D.A. Society. John Heath, chief organizer of Phi Beta Kappa,
according to tradition earlier sought but was refused admission to the P.D.A., though
he may instead have disdained to join it. The new society was intended to be “purely
of domestic manufacture, without any connexion whatever with anything European, either English
or German.” The founders of Phi Beta Kappa declared that
the society was formed for congeniality and to promote good fellowship, with “friendship
as its basis and benevolence and literature as its pillars.” Like the older, Latin-letter fraternities,
the Phi Beta Kappa was a secret society. To protect its members and to instill a sense
of solidarity, each had the essential attributes of most modern fraternities: an oath of secrecy,
a badge and a diploma of membership, mottoes, a ritual of initiation, a handclasp of recognition;
to these, the Phi Beta Kappa would soon add another attribute, branches or “chapters”
at other colleges. The new society was given the motto, Φιλοσοφία
Βίου Κυβερνήτης or in Latin letters Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs, which
means in English The Love for Knowledge be the Guide of Life. Greek was chosen, because Greek was in Roman
times the language of science like Latin in medieval times. One official historian of the society, William
T. Hastings, and some others believe that the “S” and “P” on the badge, which stood
for Societas Philosophiae, “Philosophical Society”, was the original name of the Society
and that “Phi Beta Kappa” came only over time to be taken as the name of the society. The heading on the original list of members
states, “A List of the members, who have been initiated into the S.P. alias Phi Beta Kappa
Society.” Later, in May, 1777, a new sign of recognition
was devised: “a salutation of the clasp of the hands, together with an immediate stroke
across the mouth with the back of the same hand, and a return with the hand used by the
saluted”. This new complex of gestures was created to
allow the mutual recognition of members “in any foreign country or place.” Before the British invasion of Virginia forced
the temporary closure of the College of William and Mary and disbandment of the Phi Beta Kappa
there early in 1781, Elisha Parmelee, an alumnus of Yale College and Harvard College, passed
through Williamsburg and took charters from the Phi Beta Kappa to establish branches of
the society at these schools. A second chapter was founded at Yale College
in late 1780; a third, at Harvard College in 1781; and a fourth, at Dartmouth College
in 1787. From these new chapters, the Phi Beta Kappa
evolved from a fraternity with principally academic and some social purposes to an entirely
honorary organization recognizing scholastic achievement. While the Phi Beta Kappa developed some of
the characteristics which still distinguish Greek-letter fraternities, it was left to
other students to fill the natural human need for fellowship with kindred students by extension
of fraternity to a purely social context. Further chapters appeared at Union College
in 1817, Bowdoin College in 1825, and Brown University in 1830. The original chapter at William and Mary was
re-established. In 1831, the Harvard chapter publicly disclosed
the fraternity’s secrets during a period of strong anti-Masonic sentiment. The first chapter established after the Phi
Beta Kappa became an “open” society was that at Trinity College, in 1845. In the pre-Civil War period Society chapters
frequently sponsored addresses by distinguished speakers. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 address at Harvard,
“The American Scholar” is the best-known of those addresses, but there were dozens of
others at schools such as Bowdoin, Brown, Harvard, Union, and Yale. As the first collegiate organization of its
type to adopt a Greek-letter name, the Phi Beta Kappa is generally considered a forerunner
of modern college fraternities as well as the model for later collegiate honorary societies. Ironically, it was partly the rise of true
“social” fraternities modelled after Phi Beta Kappa later in the nineteenth century which
obviated the social aspects of membership in the organization, transforming it into
the honorary society it is today. By 1883, when the United Chapters of Phi Beta
Kappa was established, there were 25 chapters. The first women were elected to the society
at the University of Vermont in 1875, and the first African-American member was elected
at the same institution two years later. Each chapter is designated by its state and
a Greek letter indicating its position in the order in which that state’s chapters were
founded. For example, Alpha of Pennsylvania refers
to the chapter at Dickinson College, founded in 1887; Beta of Pennsylvania, the chapter
at Lehigh University; Gamma of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lafayette College; and Delta
of Pennsylvania, the chapter at the University of Pennsylvania. By 1920, a total of 89 chapters existed at
a variety of schools. New chapters are continually added; as of
2007 there were 276. In 1988, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa
officially changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society, recalling the name under which
the organization had been established in 1776. The Key
The symbol of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is a golden key engraved on the obverse with
the image of a pointing finger, three stars, and the Greek letters from which the society
takes its name. The stars are said today to show the ambition
of young pupils and the three distinguishing principles of the Society: friendship, morality,
and learning. On the reverse are found the initials “SP”
in script, which stand for the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, or “Philosophical Society”. The “key” of Phi Beta Kappa did not begin
as a copy of a watchkey. The first insignia was in fact a larger, cut-and-engraved
silver medallion, essentially a square of metal with a loop cut integrally with the
body of the square from the same sheet of silver, in order to allow for suspension from
one or two ribbons worn around the member’s neck in the manner in which the older fraternities
wore their own insignia. Later, the size of the medallion was reduced
and men took to wearing the insignia on their watch chains as fobs. The post or stem, designed for the winding
of pocket-watches, did not appear on fobs until the beginning of the 19th century. The fobs were not even gold at first; the
earliest extant 18th-century models were made of silver or pewter, and again it was not
until the first quarter of the 19th century that gold largely supplanted the use of silver
or pewter. Some notable exceptions did occur, as at Harvard,
which until the first decade of the twentieth century continued the use of silver or pewter
for some of its keys. Though several stylistic details have survived
since the earliest days—the use of the stars, pointing hand, and Greek letters on the obverse,
for example—notable differences exist between older keys and current examples. The name of the recipient was not engraved
on the earliest fobs or keys, and was not until the first decade of the nineteenth century. The name of the school from which the fob
or key came was also not routinely included on the earliest models, and sometimes the
only way to trace a key to a particular school’s chapter is by researching the name of the
recipient against surviving class records. The number of stars on the obverse has also
changed over the years, with never fewer than three, but on some known examples with as
many as a dozen. Also, the date of the awarding of the honor
is only seen on keys from the second quarter of the nineteenth century onward. Only in 1912 was the key made to a uniform
standard of size, golden appearance, and engraving with the school’s name, recipient’s name,
and date of the award. Activities and publications
The Phi Beta Kappa Society publishes The Key Reporter, a newsletter distributed quarterly
to all contributing members and biannually to all other members, and The American Scholar,
a quarterly subscription-based journal that accepts essays on literature, history, science,
public affairs, and culture. Phi Beta Kappa also funds a number of fellowships,
visiting scholar programs, and academic awards. The Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards are the Ralph
Waldo Emerson Award, the Christian Gauss Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. Notable members
Since inception, 17 U.S. Presidents, 38 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and 136 Nobel Laureates
have been inducted members. See also
Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science Phi Theta Kappa
References External links
Official website The History of College Fraternities
First Fraternity in the world Geocities.ws
University of New Hampshire Texts on Wikisource:
Carl Schurz, Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, 1882
William Raimond Baird, “Phi Beta Kappa,” Baird’s Manual of American College Fraternities,
1879

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