What is

Phi Beta Kappa?

On December 5, 1776,  a group of young men at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia met to create a secret society, at once intellectual and social in purpose.  They held their first meetings in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, the same room in which Patrick Henry, in 1774, called for the creation of a Continental Congress to resist British policy.  In their clandestine meetings, the members seriously debated a host of questions such as, “Whether a wise state hath any interest nearer at heart than the education of the Youth.”  Soon afterward, the establishment of chapters at Yale and Harvard insured that Phi Beta Kappa would survive the arrival of General Cornwallis’s troops at Williamsburg.  Over the years, as more chapters came into existence, the organization evolved into an honor society, intended to recognize academic excellence and intellectual achievement.  A national organization was created in 1883, now located in Washington, D.C., to bring together the scattered chapters into some uniformity.  The Society now has over 500,000 living members elected over the years by the 286 chapters at colleges and universities throughout the country.


The Tufts Chapter, Delta of Massachusetts, was organized on September 7, 1892, the year before the original chapter at the College of William and Mary was reactivated.  The Tufts chapter was the fourth in the state to be established, and hence the designation “Delta.”  It was founded through the efforts of William R. Shipman, a graduate of Middlebury College and the first librarian of Tufts and Frank Pierpont Graves, a graduate of Columbia University, a classicist of renown on the Tufts faculty.


Women were first admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in 1875.  This chapter was founded in 1892, the very same year that women were first admitted to Tufts, and their names immediately began to appear prominently on the rosters of the society.  Two of the six initiates at Tufts in 1896 were women, members of the first coeducational class to complete a four-year program.  Within a very few years, women had obtained such a foothold in the chapter that fear was expressed that a feminine monopoly might be created.


In 1899 six of the eight initiates were women.  This so greatly disturbed one alumnus that he wrote the following to the secretary of the chapter: “I was not a little shocked at the preponderance of feminine names on the list.  The implication seems to be plain that the quality of our boys is deteriorating, or is it that the girls are exceptionally brilliant?”  In 1906, after it was realized that all five of the initiates that year were women, another agitated alumnus proposed that the chapter constitution be amended to set up a quota system to provide that not more than half of those proposed for membership in any year could be women.  Happily the proposed amendment was never acted upon.


Phi Beta Kappa continues to take great pride in its origins.  Among the symbols it retains from the time of its founding is the Phi Beta Kappa key.  On its front the Greek Letters Phi Beta Kappa stand for the motto, Philosophia Biou Kubernetes, meaning “The Love of Wisdom, the Guide of Life.”  The three stars in the upper left hand corner symbolize the aims of the Society: Friendship, Morality and Literature (or Scholarship).  A pointing hand in the lower right-hand corner stands for aspiration.  On the reverse side are inscribed the letters S and P, which stand for the Society’s second motto, the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, meaning “philosophical society.”  Below them appears the date of the founding of the first chapter: December 5, 1776, the member’s name and electing chapter are engraved above.


Charles Evan Hughes, the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one of our Society’s most eminent members eloquently summarized the purposes of Phi Beta Kappa as follows:


The particular interest of Phi Beta Kappa is in liberal education... Intensive critical study of educational aims and methods has found nothing to take its place.  It means the development by careful training of the capacity to appreciate what has been done and thought, the ability to make worthwhile appraisals of achievements, doctrines, theories, and proposals.  It is liberal because it emancipates; it signifies freedom from the tyranny of ignorance, and, from what is worse, the dominion of folly... [Phi Beta Kappa] holds aloft the old banner of scholarship, and to the students who have turned aside from the easier paths and by their talent and fidelity have proved themselves to be worthy, it gives the fitting recognition of a special distinction.


For more information on the Phi Beta Kappa Society, go to the PBK national website at http://www.pbk.org.



208 B East Hall

Tufts University

Medford, MA  02155

Phone: 617-627-3041

Fax: 617-627-3479

Email: pbk@tufts.edu

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