It’s An Honor!

December 5, 1776
Honor Society Phi Beta Kappa Was Founded

You probably have an Honor Roll or list for students at your school with outstanding achievements and high grades, and perhaps you’re on it. At the college level, there is Phi Beta Kappa. Founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 5, 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is America’s most prestigious honor society. Membership in the organization is based on outstanding achievement in the liberal arts and sciences and typically limited to students in the upper tenth of their graduating class. But it’s changed a lot from its beginnings.

Organized by a group of enterprising undergraduates, Phi Beta Kappa was the nation’s first Greek-letter society. Its name is formed from the initial letters of the Greek words for philosophia biou kubernetes, meaning “Philosophy, the Guide of Life.” Members met regularly to write, debate, and socialize. They also planned to expand the organization. In doing so, they established the practices and symbols typical of American fraternities and sororities: an oath of secrecy, a code of laws, mottoes in Greek and Latin, and an elaborate initiation ritual. When the Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close for a time, Harvard and Yale took over the new Phi Beta Kappa tradition.

Phi Beta Kappa spread to colleges throughout New England. By the end of the 19th century, the once secretive, exclusively male social group had dropped its oath of secrecy, opened its doors to women, and transformed into a national honor society. Now it is dedicated to cultivating and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. More than 270 chapters serve more than 500,000 living members, including many past and present Supreme Court justices and former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. The society also offers book and essay awards. Think about working toward and joining an honor society at school. Someday you may be a Phi Beta Kappa!