Phi Beta Kappa: Honoring Intellectual Ambition Since 1776

By Claire Gauen
PBK Kenyon College 2007

Every year in Arts & Sciences, a select group of graduating seniors is welcomed into a prestigious group of scholars and thinkers. Named after the first letters of the Greek Philosophia Biou Kubernetes, or The Love of Wisdom, the Helmsman of Life, Phi Beta Kappa recognizes and honors a specific kind of academic achievement: the pursuit of a truly liberal education.

Seniors don’t apply to be a part of Phi Beta Kappa. Instead, a selection committee made up of two people from the humanities, two people from the social and behavioral sciences, and two people from the natural sciences and mathematics meet and pore over the transcripts of qualified students. Phi Beta Kappa inductees exhibit success in their courses – they typically have a GPA of 3.85 or higher – but the selection committee is looking for more than high grades.

“Your academic record has to show superior strength and breadth,” says Leonard Green. Green has been treasurer of the WashU Phi Beta Kappa chapter for some 20 years. Before computers were widely used, he remembers arduously looking over transcripts on transparencies and overhead projectors. The technology may have changed over the years, but the qualities the committee seeks have remained intact since the establishment of the WashU chapter in 1914. (The organization itself was founded all the way back in 1776 as the first fraternal organization to adopt Greek letters as its name.)

Michael Getty, the group’s secretary, says that Phi Beta Kappa looks for students who have chosen to take courses “for the pure intellectual joy of exploring, learning, and becoming a well-educated citizen and thinker.” These classes should include higher-level courses from across the spectrum of Arts & Sciences. With these criteria, typically less than 10% of the graduating senior class is awarded membership.

Pursuing studies in a wide range of subjects involves both curiosity and bravery, especially in a national climate that stresses a return-on-investment approach to education. “The reasons to not take challenging courses in the liberal arts are many, and very persistent and very understandable,” Getty says. “It’s risky. You don’t always know what the answer is, and sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes it’s all about learning to ask questions. And that’s a tough sell to students who are here because they’ve gotten all the answers right.”

Those who choose to adopt the values of Phi Beta Kappa, however, may reap later rewards for their intellectual bravery. “I think it’s important for the individual. I think it’s important for society. And I think it’s important for business,” says Green. “So many current students and upcoming students will end up pursuing jobs and careers at things that are not even in the realm of possibility right now, that don’t even exist yet. I would argue that the well-educated person is the one who will be more likely to get those positions and will be better at those positions.”

In addition to providing benefits for the individual, proponents of the values of Phi Beta Kappa look to the liberal arts to provide the means of solving future global issues.

“Long after we are dead, this generation of students is going to be facing problems that we have essentially created and left for them,” Getty explains. “And they’re going to be really existential problems: Understanding the nature of freedom and equality, what are our obligations to each other, what is justice and what does it look like, who we are and what it means to be human. We need people who know how to think about those big questions, and we need them soon. We need them to be supported and encouraged and visible.”

In order to increase that visibility, Vincent Sherry, the president of the WashU chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, hopes to make the organization more prominent on campus. The group already grants the sophomore Burton M. Wheeler award, named after the longtime faculty member and secretary of Phi Beta Kappa. Sherry plans to do even more to increase awareness of the group earlier on in students’ academic careers.

“Many of the undergraduates have an obscure recognition of the letters and what they signify, and they have a vague sense that it’s some honorific – but they don’t know that it is kind of the ultimate honor in an arts and sciences education,” says Sherry. “What I’m trying to do is move Phi Beta Kappa out more into the sunlight here and to allow its values, standards, and expectations to be more normative in the college.”

“Phi Beta Kappa stands for a model of learning that is looking for a cultivation of the self, and a cultivation of the ability to learn, that will become the staging area for the further work of life,” Sherry continues. It offers, in the words of one of its founding documents, “freedom from the tyranny of folly.” Rather than a ceremonial ending to four years of study, Phi Beta Kappa represents values to guide students forward, both in education and in their lives ahead.