Phi Beta Kappa Society
The Phi Beta Kappa Society is an academic honor society
Honor society
In the United States, an honor society is a rank organization that recognizes excellence among peers. Numerous societies recognize various fields and circumstances. The Order of the Arrow, for example, is the national honor society of the Boy Scouts of America...

. Its mission is to "celebrate and advocate excellence in the liberal arts
Liberal arts
The term liberal arts refers to those subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were the core liberal arts. In medieval times these subjects were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy...

 and sciences"; and induct "the most outstanding students of arts and sciences at America’s leading colleges and universities." Founded at The College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, as the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity
A fraternity is a brotherhood, though the term usually connotes a distinct or formal organization. An organization referred to as a fraternity may be a:*Secret society*Chivalric order*Benefit society*Friendly society*Social club*Trade union...

, it is also the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences and among the oldest undergraduate societies in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. Phi Beta Kappa stands for or — "Love of learning is the guide of life".


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.

Since inception, 17 U.S. President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

s, 37 U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 Justices, 1 NFL MVP and 136 Nobel Laureates
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

 have been inducted members.

Only about 10 percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Of the institutions with chapters, only about 10 percent of the arts and sciences graduates are elected to Phi Beta Kappa membership.

The ideal Phi Beta Kappan has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests. Each year, about one college senior in a hundred, nationwide, is invited to join Phi Beta Kappa.

Membership in Phi Beta Kappa shows commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, and to freedom of inquiry and expression — and it provides a competitive edge in the marketplace. Potential employers regularly contact the national office of Phi Beta Kappa to confirm the membership of job seekers who have listed Phi Beta Kappa among their credentials.


The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary
College of William and Mary
The College of William & Mary in Virginia is a public research university located in Williamsburg, Virginia, United States...

 in Williamsburg, Virginia
Williamsburg, Virginia
Williamsburg is an independent city located on the Virginia Peninsula in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area of Virginia, USA. As of the 2010 Census, the city had an estimated population of 14,068. It is bordered by James City County and York County, and is an independent city...

, 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
Raleigh Tavern
Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia, gained some fame in the pre-American Revolutionary War Colony of Virginia as a gathering place for the Burgesses after several Royal Governors officially dissolved the House of Burgesses, the elected legislative body, when their actions did not suit the Crown...

 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). It is true that 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
Sub rosa
The Latin phrase sub rosa means "under the rose" and is used in English to denote secrecy or confidentiality, similar to the Chatham House Rule....

,, 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
Flat Hat Club
The Flat Hat Club is the popular name of a society founded after 1916 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and revived there in 1972. The organization was named after the F.H.C. Society, which had been founded at the College on November 11, 1750, and was itself known...

"), 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
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 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, or "Philosophy is the helmsman of life," now officially translated as "Philosophy is the guide of life". Greek was chosen as the language for the motto because Heath "was the best Greek scholar in college."

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
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

 and Harvard College
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

, 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
Dartmouth College
Dartmouth College is a private, Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire, United States. The institution comprises a liberal arts college, Dartmouth Medical School, Thayer School of Engineering, and the Tuck School of Business, as well as 19 graduate programs in the arts and sciences...

 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
Union College
Union College is a private, non-denominational liberal arts college located in Schenectady, New York, United States. Founded in 1795, it was the first institution of higher learning chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. In the 19th century, it became the "Mother of Fraternities", as...

 in 1817, Bowdoin College
Bowdoin College
Bowdoin College , founded in 1794, is an elite private liberal arts college located in the coastal Maine town of Brunswick, Maine. As of 2011, U.S. News and World Report ranks Bowdoin 6th among liberal arts colleges in the United States. At times, it was ranked as high as 4th in the country. It is...

 in 1825, and Brown University
Brown University
Brown University is a private, Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. Founded in 1764 prior to American independence from the British Empire as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations early in the reign of King George III ,...

 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)
Trinity College (Connecticut)
Trinity College is a private, liberal arts college in Hartford, Connecticut. Founded in 1823, it is the second-oldest college in the state of Connecticut after Yale University. The college enrolls 2,300 students and has been coeducational since 1969. Trinity offers 38 majors and 26 minors, and has...

, in 1845.

As the first collegiate organization of its type to adopt a Greek
Greek alphabet
The Greek alphabet is the script that has been used to write the Greek language since at least 730 BC . The alphabet in its classical and modern form consists of 24 letters ordered in sequence from alpha to omega...

-letter name, the Phi Beta Kappa is generally considered a forerunner of modern college fraternities
Fraternities and sororities
Fraternities and sororities are fraternal social organizations for undergraduate students. In Latin, the term refers mainly to such organizations at colleges and universities in the United States, although it is also applied to analogous European groups also known as corporations...

 as well as the model for later collegiate honorary societies. Ironically, it was partly the rise of true "social" fraternities modeled 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
University of Vermont
The University of Vermont comprises seven undergraduate schools, an honors college, a graduate college, and a college of medicine. The Honors College does not offer its own degrees; students in the Honors College concurrently enroll in one of the university's seven undergraduate colleges or...

 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
Dickinson College
Dickinson College is a private, residential liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Originally established as a Grammar School in 1773, Dickinson was chartered September 9, 1783, five days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, making it the first college to be founded in the newly...

, founded in 1887; Beta of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lehigh University
Lehigh University
Lehigh University is a private, co-educational university located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the Lehigh Valley region of the United States. It was established in 1865 by Asa Packer as a four-year technical school, but has grown to include studies in a wide variety of disciplines...

 (founded later that same year); Gamma of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lafayette College
Lafayette College
Lafayette College is a private coeducational liberal arts and engineering college located in Easton, Pennsylvania, USA. The school, founded in 1826 by James Madison Porter,son of General Andrew Porter of Norristown and citizens of Easton, first began holding classes in 1832...

 (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania, the chapter at the University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...


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 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 "Philosophical Society".

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 5, 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.

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
The American Scholar (magazine)
The American Scholar is the literary quarterly of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded in 1932. The magazine has won fourteen National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors from 1999 to present, including awards for General Excellence...

, 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. Its three book awards are the Ralph Waldo Emerson award
Ralph Waldo Emerson award
The Ralph Waldo Emerson award is a non-fiction literary award given by the Phi Beta Kappa society, the nation's oldest academic society, for books that have made the most significant contributions to the humanities. Albert William Levi won the first of these awards, in 1960.-Winners:*1960: Albert...

, the Christian Gauss
Christian Gauss
Christian Gauss was an influential literary critic and professor of literature.-Biography:Gauss was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father had fled Württemberg when Prussia began to dominate it in the 1860s...

 Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science
Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science
The Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science is given annually by the Phi Beta Kappa Society to authors of significant books in the fields of science and mathematics. The award was first given in 1959 to anthropologist Loren Eiseley.-Award winners:-References:...


External links

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