This Week in History: Phi Beta Kappa was founded on Dec. 5, 1776

Phi Beta Kappa is a college and university honor society. It was founded during the American Revolution (1775-1783) at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. A group of five students gathered in the Apollo Room at the Old Raleigh Tavern. One of these students, John Heath, proposed that there should be a society for more serious-minded students, those who achieve high academic records and demonstrate integrity of character. The founders chose the name ΦBK, the Greek letters for the society’s motto, “Love of learning is the guide of life.” The Greek initials formed the name Phi Beta Kappa. It was the first American fraternity with a Greek-letter name.

Phi Beta Kappa was originally organized as a secret society. The founders believed secrecy was necessary so that members could freely discuss any topic they chose to in literature and philosophy. The group had an oath of secrecy, a badge and a seal, a motto in Greek and Latin, a code of laws, an elaborate initiation, and a special handshake. These became essential characteristics of the Greek social fraternities and sororities that followed. During the 1800’s, the organization abandoned secrecy. Phi Beta Kappa became an honor society with a mission to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to recognize academic excellence, and to embrace freedom of thought and expression.

Today, Phi Beta Kappa has chapters at nearly 300 colleges and universities throughout the United States and more than half a million members. Both men and women can belong, and membership is for life. New members are elected—primarily by Phi Beta Kappa college faculty—from seniors and juniors with outstanding academic records. Each year, about 1 student in 100, nationwide, is invited to join Phi Beta Kappa. The honor society counts some of the most notable names in the world among its ranks, including nearly 140 Nobel laureates; 38 U.S. Supreme Court justices—including 7 of the 9 current justices; and 17 U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are the sons of Phi Beta Kappa members. All of these people have one thing in common: the pursuit of excellence. And for more than two centuries, the members of Phi Beta Kappa have done just that, though today, laptops have replaced quill pens.

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