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Phi Beta Kappa Society

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The Phi Beta Kappa Society is an academic honor society with the mission of "fostering and recognizing excellence" in the undergraduate liberal arts and sciences.[1] Founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, it was the first collegiate organization to adopt a Greek-letter name and is the oldest honor society in the United States.[2] Today there are 276 chapters and over half a million living members.[3]

Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης or philosophia biou kubernetes — "Love of learning is the guide of life."[4]

Membership Edit

Although each individual chapter determines its specific applicants of the Phi Beta Kappa Council's 1952 Stipulations Concerning Eligibility for Membership and sets its own academic standards, even the most generous chapter will typically elect fewer than 10% among the candidates for degrees at that College of Arts and Sciences.

Phi Beta Kappa is generally considered the most prestigious American college honor society,[5] and membership is one of the highest honors that can be conferred on undergraduate liberal arts and science students.

However, in the last two decades, rates of acceptance of Phi Beta Kappa membership invitations by students or "members in course" have significantly dropped. During the last triennial convention held in October 2006, the national secretary (chief executive officer) of Phi Beta Kappa admitted in his annual State of the Society address that:

The data show a generally heartening, but not entirely untroubled picture. At about a third of our chapters, essentially no one turns down the invitation. At almost another third, the acceptance rate is above 80 percent. But at the remaining chapters, almost 100, the rates are lower. At a small number of chapters, the percentage of invited students who are subsequently initiated is as low as 40 percent and 30 percent. Some who have seen these figures question the viability of those campuses as sheltering institutions.[6]

The national secretary then admitted, "It is distressing that anyone should decline this honor. Our aim is to have strong acceptance rates at all our chapters."[6]

History Edit

Student associations of a social nature were formed hundreds of years ago in European universities. These student groups, guilds and other social, literary, and religious associations, existed in Europe over many centuries and in many forms. By the time colleges were founded in the American colonies, however, nearly all traces of student organizations and independence in lifestyle had been eliminated. Thus, the institution of American college Greek-letter fraternities is the unique development of American students.

Of the nine colonial colleges established in the 1600s and 1700s, the College of William and Mary was among the most prominent and had some of the best classroom and residential buildings. Founded in 1693, it is second in age only to Harvard. It was at William and Mary, during the Revolutionary War, that the first Greek-letter college fraternity was established.

When the United States Declaration of Independence was read in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, it proclaimed the right of the colonials to have government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Adoption of that galvanizing idea soon reached Williamsburg, Virginia, a hotbed of agitation for independence. The flame of revolution spread among students at William and Mary, and they were eager to discuss the burning issues of the day, especially topics more directly affecting student life.

However, the opportunity for students to form a group and to debate any issue was severely restricted within college walls, so students gathered in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg for the limited discussions which were possible. In this atmosphere, on December 5, 1776, five close and trusted friends remained after other students returned to campus. They formed the first permanent Greek-letter society in North America. The name they chose was Phi Beta Kappa.

It is believed that Phi Beta Kappa grew out of an older William and Mary organization, founded in 1750, named the Flat Hat Society; notably, Thomas Jefferson was a member. Phi Beta Kappa was, of necessity, a secret society. To protect its members, it had all of the attributes of most modern fraternities--an oath of secrecy, a badge or key, mottos in Greek, an initiation and a handshake.

Before the British invasion of Virginia forced closure of the College of William and Mary and the disbandment of Phi Beta Kappa in early 1781, students in New England colleges established other branches of the society. The second chapter was founded at Yale University in late 1780, the third at Harvard University in 1781, and the fourth at Dartmouth College in 1787. From them, Phi Beta Kappa evolved from a fraternity with principally academic and some social purposes to an entirely honorary organization recognizing scholastic achievement. While Phi Beta Kappa developed the distinctive characteristics of 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 social context.

Further chapters appeared at Union College in 1817, Bowdoin College in 1825, and Brown University in 1830. The original chapter at William & Mary also was reestablished. Secrecy was abandoned in 1831 during a period of strong anti-Masonic sentiment. The first chapter established after becoming an "open" society was at Trinity College in 1845.

As the first collegiate organization of its type to adopt a Greek-letter name, it is generally considered the forerunner of modern college fraternities as well as the model for later honor societies. Ironically, it was partly the rise of true "social" fraternities modeled after Phi Beta Kappa later that century which obviated the social aspects of membership in the organization, transforming it into the honor society it is today.

By 1883, when the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa were 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 the order in which that state's chapters were founded. For example, Alpha of Pennsylvania refers to the chapter at Dickinson College (1887); Beta of Pennsylvania at Lehigh University (1887); Gamma of Pennsylvania at Lafayette College (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania at the University of Pennsylvania (1892).

By 1920, there were 89 chapters at a variety of schools. New chapters are continuously added; currently there are 270. In 1988, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa officially changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

In 2005, a controversy surrounding the revocation of a speaking invitation to filmmaker and activist Michael Moore derailed the membership application of George Mason University. Economics Professor James Bennett, faculty senate chairman, was disappointed by the decision, telling the Washington Post that "Phi Beta Kappa is the ultimate recognition of undergraduate academic achievement. We owe it to our students [to establish a chapter]." [1] George Mason will become eligible for consideration again in 2008.

The KeyEdit

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 represent the ambition of young scholars 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 "society of philosophy".

The "key" of Phi Beta Kappa did not actually begin as a (watch) key in 1776. The first were in fact medallions, or better, watchfobs, essentially squares of metal with a loop forged integrally to the body of the fob in order to allow for suspension from a watch chain. The post or stem, designed for the winding of pocketwatches, did not appear on fobs until the beginning of the 19th century. The fobs weren't 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, such as at Harvard, which continued the use of silver or pewter for some of its keys up until the first decade of the 20th century. While several stylistic features have survived since the earliest days - the use of the stars, pointing hand, and Greek letters on the obverse, for example - a number of differences are noted with older keys when compared to more modern examples. For one, the name of the recipient was not engraved on the earliest fobs or keys, and it was not until the first decade of the 19th century that examples are known on which is engraved the name of the recipient of the honor. 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 (which is possible only regarding keys with the owner's name engraved). 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 (the explanation as to the meaning of the stars in these early cases varies from chapter to chapter). Also, the date of the awarding of the honor is only seen on relatively later models (from the second quarter of the 19th century onward). Some people mistake the date that appears on the fob or key - December 5th, 1776 - as the date that a particular fob or key was awarded, when in fact that is merely the date of the founding of the society. Finally, in 1912, the key was standardized such that its size, golden appearance (some are plated), and engraving with the school's name, recipient's name, and date of the award all became standard, and the key lost much of its earlier archaic charm.

Activities and publicationsEdit

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.


  1. The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Phi Beta Kappa. URL accessed on 2007-08-09.
  2. A Brief History of Phi Beta Kappa. About ΦΒΚ. Phi Beta Kappa. URL accessed on 2007-08-09.
  3. Phi Beta Kappa Awards Chapter to Washington College. Washington College. URL accessed on 2007-08-14.
  4. Students Initiated into New Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Xavier University. Xavier University News. URL accessed on 2007-08-14.
  5. includeonly>Thomson, Susan C.. "Phi Beta Kappa Is Not A Social Fraternity" (Abstract), The Washington Post, Jun 20, 2004, p. A 18. Retrieved on 2007-08-09. “Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious college honor society, isn't ringing the same old bell with college students.
  6. 6.0 6.1 John W. Churchill, "State of the Society Address", 41st Triennial Convention of Phi Beta Kappa, Atlanta, Georgia, October 2006.

External links Edit

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