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Phi Beta Kappa Website

The Nation's Oldest and Most Widely Known Academic Honor Society

"Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The first meeting was held in the Apollo Room of the Old Raleigh Tavern on December 5, 1776."

"John Heath, the first president of Phi Beta Kappa, was determined to develop a student society that would be much more serious minded than its predecessors at the college, one devoted to the pursuit of liberal education and intellectual fellowship. The Greek initials for the society's motto, "Love of learning is the guide of life," form the name Phi Beta Kappa."

"The first college society to bear a Greek-letter name, ΦBK introduced the essential characteristics of the Greek societies that followed it: an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate form of initiation, a seal, and a special handshake. The organization was created as a secret society so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark of ΦBK ever since."

"In the winter of 1781, when General Charles Cornwallis positioned the British army on the York peninsula for what became the climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War, the College of William and Mary closed. Though it reopened a year later, ΦBK activities were not permanently re-established there for many years."

"This closure would have been the end of ΦBK had the group not earlier agreed to a vision of their only non-Virginian member to establish chapters in New England. Elisha Parmele, a native of Connecticut who had studied at Yale and graduated from Harvard, helped to create chapters at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781, thus ensuring the continuation of the society."

"In 1831, after anti-Masonic agitation prompted much discussion about the ΦBK oath, Harvard dropped the requirement for secrecy, an action that probably saved the society from further open criticism as well as from rivalry with the social fraternities that made their appearance around that time."

"Other chapters were added gradually, and the number nationwide stood at 25 in 1883, when the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was created"

"At about the same time, the first women and African-Americans were invited to join ΦBK. The first chapters to induct women were at the University of Vermont, in 1875, and at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, in 1876. The first African-Americans were elected at Yale, in 1874, and at the University of Vermont, in 1877."

"Between 1887 and 1917, 64 new chapters were established, and by 1983 another 147 had been chartered. In 1988 the national organization’s name was changed to "The Phi Beta Kappa Society."

"Today there are 283 chapters at American colleges and universities, and there are more than 50 active alumni associations located in all regions of the country."

"The first two centuries of ΦBK's existence are described by Richard N. Current in Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years (Oxford University Press, 1990)."


"Five students at the College of William and Mary founded The Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1776, during the American Revolution. For more than two and a quarter centuries, the Society has embraced the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης in Greek and Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs in Latin, which means "Love of learning is the guide of life," the motto of the Society. Laptops have replaced quill pens, but these ideas, symbolized on Phi Beta Kappa's distinctive gold key, still lay the foundations of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor."

"Today, the Phi Beta Kappa Society celebrates and advocates excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. Phi Beta Kappa chapters invite for induction the most outstanding arts and sciences students at 283 leading U.S. colleges and universities. The Society sponsors activities to advance the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences in higher education and in society at large. A network of associations provides Phi Beta Kappa members opportunities to stay connected and involved in their own communities."

"Each year, about one college senior in a hundred, nationwide, is invited to join The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Only about 10 percent of the nation's institutions of higher learning have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. And only about 10 percent of the arts and sciences graduates of these distinguished institutions are invited to join The Phi Beta Kappa Society which makes the invitation process one of the most selective in the nation. The ideal Phi Beta Kappa member has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests. "

"Since the Society's founding in 1776, 17 U.S. Presidents, 39 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and more than 130 Nobel Laureates have been inducted as members, along with countless authors, diplomats, athletes, researchers, actors, and business leaders. Famous or not, all of our members have one thing in common—their rigorous pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences."

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