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In accordance with a belief that the nature of Phi Beta Kappa is not sufficiently understood by many undergraduates, the following statement has been prepared by the society, at the recommendation of the Student Council.
The honorary society of Phi Beta Kappa was founded during the Revolutionary War, at the College of William and Mary, Virginia, for the purpose of recognizing scholarship and character. A few years later, the second chapter was established at Harvard. Among the men who have won election to this chapter are John Quincy Adams, George Bancroft, Phillips Brooks, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Everett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Lothrop Motley, Charles Summer, Thomas Went worth Higginson, John Davis Long, Charles William Eliot, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, and Theodore Roosevelt.
For many years election to Phi Beta Kappa was based entirely on marks received in college courses. It was in a way automatic; if a man won high enough marks he was assured of election. But with the rapid growth of the College, and especially with the introduction of the elective system, it became evident that some new method of election must be found. The method that was finally selected has several times been modified, and is now believed to secure the election of the best men.
Toward the middle of each year, the College office prepares a list of the highest twelve men in the Junior class, and the highest forty-four men (exclusive of those already elected) in the Senior class. From these lists the eight men elected in the previous year, known as the "Junior Eight," proceed to elect twenty-two Seniors and eight Juniors, and their choice, subject to the approval of a committee of graduates, of which President Lowell is at present the chairman, constitutes the election.
In making the choice, several considerations besides an aggregate of high grades receive attention. For example, a man who has taken principally easy courses, or a man whose work has fallen off from year to year, may not win election, when another man with less A's to his credit may be elected because he has shown ability in difficult courses and has constantly improved. The narrow specialist, and the man who has not specialized at all are equally apt to fail of election. Moreover, the electors take into account success in winning prizes for essays, in debating, and in other intellectual activities. In no case are purely personal grounds, -- matters of likes and dislikes,--considered at all; but a continuous effort is made to recognize real ability and intellectual command, as opposed to mere "grinding."
Later in the year, five "additional" Seniors may be elected. In this election intellectual ability is again the basis; but here success in undergraduate activities of an intellectual nature,--work on the papers, or in debating, for instance,--and to a certain extent, work outside of College may be considered. At this time an attempt is made to find men who, in addition to doing good work in their college courses, have shown especial brilliancy in some field. Occasionally men are elected "additional" members who have failed of regular election merely because of some unavoidable circumstance, such as illness, or entrance from other colleges, which prevented them from being placed on the lists prepared by the office. The proportion of members of Phi Beta Kappa to the whole of each college class is smaller at Harvard than at most men's colleges; of recent years it has been about eight per cent.
The Harvard Chapter is fortunate in holding its elections so early in the year that the members can know each other as undergraduates. In the room in Memorial Hall, granted to the society by the Corporation, and furnished by the generosity of some of the alumni, the undergraduates hold weekly dinners; a few weeks ago a similar set of dinners was instituted for recent graduates. There is an annual undergraduate dinner; and this year was instituted a larger dinner in the Union for the reception of new members. In the annual baseball game with the Yale chapter, the Harvard chapter has usually held its own. The Phi Beta Kappa spread, on Class Day, has been successful since its foundation, a number of years ago.
On Phi Beta Kappa Day, in Commencement week, the alumni members gather from all parts of the country, to hear the oration and the poem, by distinguished members. After these exercises, which are open to the public, is held the Annual dinner, in the Union. This dinner, to which only members are admitted, is followed by informal speaking by a number of graduates, and is one of the experiences most enjoyed by the members.
Phi Beta Kappa is not sensational,--the life of the scholar is seldom sensational. But the society aims to give substantial recognition to those men who believe that intellectual effort is worth while; it aims to do for the scholar what the "H" and the Varsity Club do for the athlete. Though sheer "grinding" or absolute indifference to scholarship are not likely to win election, membership is within the reach of any man of good ability who is willing to do, even at some sacrifice, the best work of which he is capable. It is interesting to note that at Yale, at a recent straw vote in which the classes of '07, '11, and '14 took part, membership in Phi Beta Kappa was voted by each class to be the highest undergraduate honor, exceeding even editorship of the college papers, or the winning of the football "Y.
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