PHI BETA KAPPA IN AMERICAN LIFE: The First Two Hundred Years by Richard Nelson Current


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In 1976, Phi Beta Kappa celebrated its bicentennial. There was great applause when the society's president stood up and praised its intellectual commitment to ""the best possible kind of elitism."" And yet when the organization applied to the Postmaster General's office for a commemorative stamp, it was turned down because of a ban on honoring social fraternities and sororities. These two events typify the love/hate relationship America has always held with its oldest honors society: admiring at times the dedication to scholarship and to high academic standards, but a little democratically uncomfortable about its brain-trust selectivity. Current (Those Terrible Carpetbaggers, 1988), who was commissioned by the society to write this history, has done an admirable job in recording its long life, and also in discussing the deep cultural divisions it has often exposed in America's devotion to higher education. He looks at Phi Beta Kappa's emergence in 1776 as a secret society at William and Mary college, as it debated such issues as the advisability of slavery and the emancipation of women--and at its rapid growth as a national organization with a quarter of a million members. Liberal in outlook, Phi Beta Kappa has always attracted strong admirers and equally vehement dissenters. Emerson praised it in his famous American Scholar address in 1837. Fundamentalists opposed to the study of evolution urged the society on to adapt a freedom-of-thought amendment in 1926. The society's finest moments, according to Current, came during the McCarthy era. Its worst time: the 1960's, with the SDS and the counterculture calling for its end because of a lack of relevance. What Current makes clear in this well-told and fascinating study, however, is that nothing could be more relevant and necessary for the continued health of higher education than Phi Beta Kappa's presence.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1990
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press