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Phi Beta Kappa

by Dr. Duane Stillions

More than 225 years ago, five students at the College of William and Mary founded the first Greek-letter college society, Phi Beta Kappa. In the heart of the American Revolution, these students formed Phi Beta Kappa as a college society that reveled in the pursuit of intellectual discourse and broadminded education. The motto they chose for Phi Beta Kappa is “Love of learning is the guide of life.”

The Greek letters on the Phi Beta Kappa badge are the initials for the society’s motto. Among the other hallmarks of the American Greek letter society which were first coined by Phi Beta Kappa were its elaborate initiation, special handshake, seal, Latin and Greek mottoes, bylaws, and oath of secrecy. The oath of secrecy adopted by Phi Beta Kappa is meant to allow the organization’s members to discuss any topic they choose without fear of reprisal.

Although the College of William and Mary closed briefly in 1781 during a siege in the area by General Charles Cornwallis, Phi Beta Kappa was kept alive by the group’s one member who did not live in Virginia. This member, Elisha Parmele, opened chapters at Yale University in 1780 and Harvard University in 1781. These two chapters flourished and its members granted Phi Beta Kappa charters to likeminded students at other schools.

The Phi Beta Kappa oath of secrecy was dropped as a requirement for membership in 1831. At that time, Phi Beta Kappa was attracting attention from opponents of Freemasonry who equated the oath taken by that organization with the one taken by Phi Beta Kappa. By 1883, there were 25 chapters overseen by the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. The first African-American inducted into Phi Beta Kappa was selected at Yale University in 1874 and the first woman in the organization was a student at the University of Vermont in 1875. There are currently 280 chapters of Phi Beta Kappa at colleges in the United States.

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