New Orleans — For more than 200 years, Phi Beta Kappa has been a word to conjure with in higher education. The academic honorary society has no doubts about its values, although its role in an era of mass education, specialization, technical study, and profound vocationalism is a nagging concern.
Or so it seemed at the recent council meeting of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa held in New Orleans. Here delegates from most of the society's 225 chapters once again wrestled with issues of inclusion and exclusion and how to maintain membership as the hallmark of excellence in undergraduate education.
From the time of its founding at William and Mary College in Virginia in 1776 until well into the 20th century, Phi Beta Kappa has been based primarily on the campuses of liberal arts colleges. For the past 40 years, however, it has struggled with access, as it terms the problem of its relation to the many students of membership quality who study at institutions where it has no chapters. Since 1937 the council has regularly considered proposals to increase membership, either by establishing new chapters more rapidly or by devising new ways to identify potential members at nonmember institutions.
Just as regularly, the delegates at triennial council meetings have rejected proposals for enlarging membership through new procedures and continued rigorous scrutiny of applications for new chapters. As it stands, 12 percent of American colleges and universities have chapters. Of the 95 applications for recognition received for consideration this time, only three survived stringent preliminary investigations and were presented to the council.
Even at this point, there was active questioning from the delegates: Was the library really adequate? How strong was the liberal arts curriculum? What about foreign language programs?
"What we stand for is very clear," asserted Robert Lumiansky, president of the American Council of Learned Societies and outgoing president of the United Chapters: "excellence in liberal education, recognition of the best minds."
Also clear, from debate on the floor of the meetings as well as conversations with delegates, was that Phi Beta Kappa was not at present able to say that membership did identify adequately the best minds or that it could effectively promote excellence in liberal education when membership in this honorary society was no longer necessarily characteristic of the leadership. For both senior scholars, whose professional lives have to a large extent supported the aims of the society in liberal education, as well as more junior academics whose commitment is still glossy with hope, a role of the society is to reaffirm the expectation that the general-educated or liberally educated person is a better-informed citizen, a more reflective individual, and a more versatile worker. They see strictly technical or vocational education as too narrow a preparation for the rapid changes today.
"Many of the second and third jobs that today's graduates will hold have not even been invented yet," explained Robert Sonkowsky, professor of classics at the University of Minnesota.
"The purpose of Phi Beta Kappa is to identify and celebrate the achievers," affirmed John Hope Franklin, University of Chicago historian and past president of the society.
"That's terribly important," he continued, "especially in our society, where the egalitarian impulse is so powerful. Intellectual achievement is one area where intellectual superiority is to be encouraged in every way."
As Professor Franklin sees it, Phi Beta Kappa must not only broaden its base by establishing new chapters, but must encourage its activity on campuses and thus develop more community among scholars at the undergraduate level. He suggests identifying scholars earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the junior year instead of at the end of the senior year. "As it is now," he continued, "the most important undergraduate organization to identify scholarship is always composed primarily of people about to leave the institution. With a cadre of enthusiastic scholars, Phi Beta Kappa could have an active program of encouraging scholarship among students from the day they arrive at college."