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The Phi Beta Kappa Society is an academic honor society with missions to "celebrate and advocate excellence in the liberal arts and sciences; and for induction of the most outstanding students of arts and sciences at America’s leading colleges and universities." Founded at The College of William and Marymarker on December 5, 1776, as the first collegiate Greek-letter fraternity, it is among the oldest undergraduate societies in the United Statesmarker. Phi Beta Kappa is widely considered the most prestigious liberal-arts and sciences honor society in the United Statesmarker.

Phi Beta Kappa is also the first collegiate organization to adopt a Greek-letter name. Today there are 276 chapters and over half a million living members.

Phi Beta Kappa ( ) stands for or — "Love of learning is the guide of life."


Although each individual chapter determines its specific application of the Phi Beta Kappa Council's 1952 Stipulations Concerning Eligibility for Membership and sets its own academic standards, even the most generous chapter will typically elect fewer than 10% among the candidates for degrees at that university's College of Arts and Sciences.

Since inception, 17 U. S. Presidents, 37 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and 131 Nobel Laureates have been inducted members.

A very high proportion of Phi Beta Kappa’s chapters induct all, or a preponderant majority, of those they invite to accept membership. Despite concerns rooted in the proliferation of collegiate honor societies and the possibility that some students might become less willing to accept distinction, the few less successful chapters of Phi Beta Kappa have made progress in recent years in their induction rate and campus visibility (report by Cara Engel, Director of Chapter Relations, to the society's Committee on Chapters, December 5, 2008). The Society has implemented a chapter effectiveness program, called the “Parmele Project,” in honor of the member of the original William and Mary chapter who ensured Phi Beta Kappa’s continuity by carrying charters to Yale and Harvard. This project emerged from studies into the characteristic activities of very successful chapters, and is shaped around a “best practices” template.

According to the national office of Phi Beta Kappa, no participating chapter has failed to improve in some dimension of its activity, whether in acceptance rate, campus visibility, recognition of excellent teaching, improved institutional support, greater faculty and student involvement, or, typically, some combination of these.


The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Marymarker in Williamsburg, Virginiamarker, and established the precedent for naming American college societies after the Greek-letter initials of a secret Greek motto.

The group consisted of students who frequented the Raleigh Tavern as a common meeting area off the college campus. There is a persistent rumor that a Masonic lodge also met in the same place, but there was a different building used by the Freemasons at Williamsburg. It is true that ten of the original members later became Freemasons. Whether the students organized to meet more freely and discuss non-academic topics, or to discuss politics in a Revolutionary society, is unknown; the earliest records indicate only that the students met to debate and engage in oratory, and on topics that would have been not far removed from the curriculum. In the Phi Beta Kappa Initiation of 1779, the new member was informed, "here then you may for a while disengage yourself from scholastic cares and communicate without reserve whatever reflections you have made upon various objects; remembering that every thing transacted within this room is transacted sub rosa,, too, you are to indulge in matters of speculation that freedom of enquiry which ever dispels the clouds of falsehood by the radiant sunshine of truth...".

There had been earlier societies at the College, including the well-known F.H.C. (nicknamed "the Flat Hat Club"), founded in 1750. William & Mary alumnus and third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most famous member of the F.H.C.; other notable members of the original Society included Col. James Innes, St. George Tucker, and George Wythe. Jefferson noted that "When I was a student of Wm. & Mary college of this state, there existed a society called the F.H.C. society, confined to the number of six students only, of which I was a member, but it had no useful object, nor do I know whether it now exists." The best opinion is that the society did not survive the invasion by British forces during the Revolution.

A second society at William and Mary was the P.D.A. Society (nicknamed "Please Don't Ask"). John Heath, chief organizer of Phi Beta Kappa, according to tradition sought but was refused admission to the P.D.A., though he may instead have disdained to join it (Heath's friend and fellow student William Short later wrote that the P.D.A. "had lost all reputation for letters, and was noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of its members" ).

The new society was intended to be "purely of domestic manufacture, without any connexion whatever with anything European, either English or German." The founders of Phi Beta Kappa declared that the society was formed for congeniality and to promote good fellowship, with "friendship as its basis and benevolence and literature as its pillars."

Like these older, Latin-letter fraternities, the Phi Beta Kappa was a secret society. To protect its members and to instill a sense of solidarity, each had the essential attributes of most modern fraternities: an oath of secrecy, a badge (or token) and a diploma (or certificate) of membership, mottoes (in the case of the Phi Beta Kappa, in Greek rather than in Latin), a ritual of initiation, a handclasp of recognition; to these, the Phi Beta Kappa would soon add another attribute, branches or "chapters" at other colleges. The society was given the motto, or "Philosophy is the helmsman of life," now officially translated as "Philosophy is the guide of life". Greek was chosen as the language for the motto because Heath "was the best Greek scholar in college."

One official historian of the society, William T. Hastings, and some others believe that the "S" and "P" on the badge, which meant Societas Philosophiae, Philosophical Society, was the original name of the Society and that the name Phi Beta Kappa only came to be taken as the society name over time. The heading on the original list of members states: "A List of the members, who have been initiated into the S.P. alias Phi Beta Kappa Society."

Later, in May, 1777, a new sign of recognition was devised: "a salutation of the clasp of the hands, together with an immediate stroke across the mouth with the back of the same hand, and a return with the hand used by the saluted". This new complex of gestures was created to allow the mutual recognition of members "in any foreign country or place."

Before the British invasion of Virginia forced the temporary closure of the College of William and Mary and disbandment of the Phi Beta Kappa there early in 1781, Elisha Parmelee, an alumnus of Yale Collegemarker and Harvard Collegemarker, passed through Williamsburg and took charters from the Phi Beta Kappa to establish branches of the society at these schools. A second chapter was founded at Yale College in late 1780; a third, at Harvard College in 1781; and a fourth, at Dartmouth Collegemarker in 1787. From these new chapters, the Phi Beta Kappa evolved from a fraternity with principally academic and some social purposes to an entirely honorary organization recognizing scholastic achievement. While the Phi Beta Kappa developed the distinctive characteristics of Greek-letter fraternities, it was left to other students to fill the natural human need for fellowship with kindred students by extension of fraternity to a purely social context.

Further chapters appeared at Union Collegemarker in 1817, Bowdoin Collegemarker in 1825, and Brown Universitymarker in 1830. The original chapter at William and Mary was re-established. In 1831, the Harvard chapter publicly disclosed the fraternity's secrets during a period of strong anti-Masonic sentiment. The first chapter established after the Phi Beta Kappa became an "open" society was that at Trinity College marker, in 1845.

As the first collegiate organization of its type to adopt a Greek-letter name, the Phi Beta Kappa is generally considered a forerunner of modern college fraternities as well as the model for later honor societies. Ironically, it was partly the rise of true "social" fraternities modeled after Phi Beta Kappa later in the nineteenth century which obviated the social aspects of membership in the organization, transforming it into the honor society it is today.

By 1883, when the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was established, there were 25 chapters. The first women were elected to the society at the University of Vermontmarker in 1875, and the first African-American member was elected at the same institution two years later.

Each chapter is designated by its state and a Greek letter indicating its position in the order in which that state's chapters were founded. For example, Alpha of Pennsylvania refers to the chapter at Dickinson Collegemarker (1887); Beta of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lehigh Universitymarker (1887); Gamma of Pennsylvania, the chapter at Lafayette Collegemarker (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania, the chapter at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker (1892).

By 1920, a total of 89 chapters existed at a variety of schools. New chapters are continually added; as of 2007 there are 276. In 1988, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa officially changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society, recalling the name under which the organization had been established in 1776.

The Key

The symbol of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is a golden key engraved on the obverse with the image of a pointing finger, three stars, and the Greek letters from which the society takes its name. The stars are said today to represent the ambition of young scholars and the three distinguishing principles of the Society: friendship, morality, and learning. On the reverse are found the initials "SP" in script, which stand for the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, or "Philosophical Society".

The "key" of Phi Beta Kappa did not actually begin as a (watch) key in 1776. The first were in fact medallions, or better, watchfobs, essentially squares of metal with a loop forged integrally to the body of the fob in order to allow for suspension from a watch chain. The post or stem, designed for the winding of pocketwatches, did not appear on fobs until the beginning of the 19th century. The fobs weren't even gold at first; the earliest extant 18th century models were made of silver or pewter, and again it was not until the first quarter of the 19th century that gold largely supplanted the use of silver or pewter; some notable exceptions did occur, such as at Harvard, which continued the use of silver or pewter for some of its keys up until the first decade of the 20th century.

While several stylistic features have survived since the earliest days - the use of the stars, pointing hand, and Greek letters on the obverse, for example - a number of differences are noted with older keys when compared to more modern examples. For one, the name of the recipient was not engraved on the earliest fobs or keys, and it was not until the first decade of the 19th century that examples are known on which is engraved the name of the recipient of the honor. The name of the school from which the fob or key came was also not routinely included on the earliest models, and sometimes the only way to trace a key to a particular school's chapter is by researching the name of the recipient against surviving class records (which is possible only regarding keys with the owner's name engraved). The number of stars on the obverse has also changed over the years, with never fewer than three, but on some known examples with as many as a dozen (the explanation as to the meaning of the stars in these early cases varies from chapter to chapter). Also, the date of the awarding of the honor is only seen on relatively later models (from the second quarter of the 19th century onward). Some people mistake the date that appears on the fob or key - December 5th, 1776 - as the date that a particular fob or key was awarded, when in fact that is merely the date of the founding of the society. Finally, in 1912, the key was standardized such that its size, golden appearance (some are plated), and engraving with the school's name, recipient's name, and date of the award all became standard.

Activities and publications

The Phi Beta Kappa Society publishes The Key Reporter, a newsletter distributed quarterly to all contributing members and biannually to all other members, and The American Scholar, a quarterly subscription-based journal that accepts essays on literature, history, science, public affairs, and culture.

Phi Beta Kappa also funds a number of fellowships, visiting scholar programs, and academic awards. Its three book awards are the Ralph Waldo Emerson award, the Christian Gauss Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science.



  1. Older collegiate societies exist or have existed at William and Mary, Harvard, and Yale, but the continuity of some to the present day has been disputed.
  3. "F.H.C. Society," University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.
  4. Robert W. Storm, "In Token of Friendship: Early Fraternity Medals at the College of William and Mary"; 1973; typescript in university archives, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.
  5. .

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