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 (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης or in Latin letters Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs, which means “Love of wisdom is the guide of life”.
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 (a persistent story maintains that a Masonic lodge also met at this tavern, but the Freemasons actually gathered at a different building in Williamsburg). 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 everything 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 (nicknamed “the Flat Hat Club”), 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 (publicly known as “Please Don’t Ask”). 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 (Heath’s friend and fellow student William Short later wrote that the P.D.A. “had lost all reputation for letters, and was noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of its members”).
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 (or token) and a diploma (or certificate) of membership, mottoes (in the case of the Phi Beta Kappa, in Greek rather than in Latin), 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 (Connecticut), 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 (founded later that same year); Gamma of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lafayette College (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania, the chapter at the University of Pennsylvania (1892).
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.
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Phi Beta Kappa Society (ΦΒΚ)
- Founded On: December 5th, 1776 – College of William and Mary
- Type: Honor Society
- Colors: Pink and Sky blue
- Flower: N/A
- Nicknames: PBK-Phi-Beta-Kappa
- Chapters: 283 Chapters
- Website: www.pbk.org
- Motto: Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης — “Love of learning is the guide of life”