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Phi Beta Kappa: 175 Year Record

By Kenneth Auchincloss

Every year on the Monday of Commencement Week, a select group of men in academic robes assembles outside of Harvard Hall and, led by a fife and drum corps, proceed to march across the Yard and into Sanders Theatre. If this group is smaller or less imposing than the main Commencement procession, it is certainly no less distinctive, for it is the procession of the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society to its annual literary meeting.

"The object of this Society," announces the Constitution of Phi Beta Kappa, "is the promotion of literature and friendly intercourse among scholars." But the transformation of the society from a social as well as literary organization, which met as often as once a week in the early nineteenth century, to the honor society of today, which meets only three times a year, has delegated this "promotion of literature" mainly to the yearly literary meeting, at which one oration and one work of poetry are presented.

And consequently it is this literary meeting that has maintained the tradition and spirit of the society since its establishment at Harvard in 1781.

Phi Beta Kappa was originally founded in 1776 at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Three years later Elisha Parmele, a graduate of Harvard in the class of 1778, secured charters to extend the society to both Harvard and Yale. Finally on September 5, 1781, the Alpha of Massachusetts was founded in Cambridge and has since had an uninterrupted existence--unlike the Yale, which was inactive from 1871 to 1884--of 175 years.

Today the membership of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa has grown considerably from the approximately 16 members from each class who were selected to the Society in the years shortly after its founding.

Realizing that at Harvard the competition for Phi Beta Kappa honors is heavier than at some other colleges, the Cambridge Chapter has increased its membership so that now ten per cent of each class is elected to the Society. An elite inner core has been maintained, however, by means of the three different stages at which one can be elected.

The first group to be elected from each class is the "Junior Eight," who are named in the spring of their Junior year by the members of the Society in the Senior class and by various graduate members. Their number is increased to 24 in November of Senior year when the "Senior Sixteen" are elected, and membership is brought up to ten per cent of the class in the third election in June.

The method of election represents a combination of reliance on University rankings and close individual study by the Society itself. In the selection of the Junior Eight and the Senior Sixteen, the Society obtains from the Registrar's Office a list of the leading students in the class which includes twice as many men as the number of places available. Thus there is a choice of 16 Juniors and 32 Seniors.

The Society then undertakes a careful screening of each individual student, in which each man is given a numerical grade representing his marks in all courses taken at the University. Final emphasis is not placed, however, on marks alone. According to Philip Levine `39, assistant professor of the Classics and Graduate Secretary of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, it is not merely an impersonal academic record that is studied, but rather "the quality of the mind of the individual."

Extra-curricular activities are also important in the selection process, but only as "a secondary factor." If two students have done equally good scholastic work, the decision will almost invariably be made in favor of the one who has also found time to indulge in some worthwhile outside activity.

Before the third election in June of the Senior year, all men who have been recommended for either magna cum laude or summa cum laude degrees are added to the Registrar's list of men who receive consideration from the Society.

The history of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard has been one of development from the fraternity which met regularly at Porter's Tavern in the early years of the 19th century to the more formal honors society of today.

This development was marked in 1831 by the abolition of secrecy in the proceedings of the society. The move, which was a partial result of the anti-Masonic agitation of that day, resulted in a more ready acceptance of the Society by the rest of the undergraduate body, which, according to President Josiah Quincy, had accused it of "discrimination" in the selection of members.

Charles P. Curtis `14, the present vice president of the Harvard Chapter of the Society, has presented another aspect of the development of the society in a sholarly essay entitled "Liquor and Learning in Harvard College, 1792-1846."

Curtis notes that the former marked overlap between the membership of Phi Beta Kappa and that of the Porcellian Club was suddenly discontinued after this momentous event. And his analysis of the price of the Society dinner reveals that before 1846 each member of the chapter must have consumed the equivalent of "a bottle of Madeira, a bottle of Sherry, and two bottles of Port."

This decline in conviviality is only one of the symptoms of the deemphasis of the social aspect of the Society that continued throughout the 19th century. Today the Literary Exercises represent one of the few remaining links to the traditions of the past.

There, in the annual Oration and Poem, the emphasis on "the promotion of literature" is just as strong as it was when Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous address on "The American Scholar" in 1837. In it, in lines which nineteenth century schoolchildren recited at class ceremonies, he expressed the ambitious thoughts which might be the motto of the Phi Beta Kappa Society itself:

"The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges. If there be one lesson more than another which should pierce his ear, it is, the world is nothing, the man is all; yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all; it is for you to dare all."

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