Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years

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On December 5, 1776, five William and Mary students, led by fifteen-year-old John Heath, formed a secret club called "Societas Philosophiae," whose motto--"Love of wisdom the guide of life"--they represented by the Greek letters O. B.K. The society quickly increased in members as well as in the trappings of mystery common to secret clubs (such as the Masons or Yale's Quill and Dagger): there was a secret handshake, secret initiations, even a secret medal. When in public, they refered to the club cryptically, by ...
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Overview


On December 5, 1776, five William and Mary students, led by fifteen-year-old John Heath, formed a secret club called "Societas Philosophiae," whose motto--"Love of wisdom the guide of life"--they represented by the Greek letters O. B.K. The society quickly increased in members as well as in the trappings of mystery common to secret clubs (such as the Masons or Yale's Quill and Dagger): there was a secret handshake, secret initiations, even a secret medal. When in public, they refered to the club cryptically, by its initials P.S. or increasingly by the Greek letters O.B.K., which they pronounced "Fie Beeta Kappa."
Today, Phi Beta Kappa is America's foremost honor society, the forerunner and prototype of all other such groups as well as all Greek-letter fraternities and sororities. Distinguished historian Richard Nelson Current here provides a complete history of the society, tracing its growth from a local debating club to a national organization which today boasts a quarter of a million members. Of course, the history of Phi Beta Kappa is in many ways a history of education in America, and as Current charts the society's development he also provides an intriguing portrait of American universities: the friction over the shift away from the classics toward liberal education and the electives system, the growing respect for scholarship among students (in 1917, he reveals, the most socially acceptable grade was C, the so-called "gentleman's grade"), and the unprecedented enrollment after World War Two. But as Current outlines the society's many achievements and its continuing influence on liberal education, he does not whitewash its past: he examines its grudging admission of women and blacks, the uproar over Paul Robeson's selection for the editorial board of American Scholar, and many other controversies.
Whether discussing the founding of The American Scholar (named after Emerson's famous Phi Beta Kappa address) or the exploitation of the society's prestige by advertisers (such as the "Phi Beta Jantzen" ads used to sell panties and bras), Current is always engaging and informative. His definitive history of the most renowned of all academic honor societies will fascinate anyone interested in education in America as well as all holders of the golden key.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This history was commissioned by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, but the Society's history committee was not pleased with the result because, says Current, the account gives an overall ``negative impression'' of Phi Beta Kappa. Current's history does leave a negative impression, but that isn't his fault. The Society (founded as a male secret society at William and Mary in 1776) apparently has always been an honor society in search of a mission. To this day, chapters are criticized for doing little more than electing new members. Publication of the journal The American Scholar seems to have been the Society's most important achievement. Current's history covers the period 1776-1976. John Hope Franklin has added an afterword to update activities since 1976. Of interest to academic libraries and public libraries with large American history collections.-- Jeffrey R. Herold, Bucyrus P.L., Ohio
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195063110
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/21/1990
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Richard Nelson Current is University Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A former president of the Southern Historical Association, he is the author of fourteen books and co-author or editor of twelve others.

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