Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization. Only 290 colleges and universities in the United States are sufficiently rigorous and intellectually challenging to host a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Its origins date to December 5, 1776, at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia where in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, the Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded and dedicated to high purposes with eighteenth-century eloquence. The emblem adopted at the first meeting of the Society was a square medal. Engraved on one side are the letters S P, signifying the Latin words Societas Philosophiae. The other side bears the initials Phi Beta Kappa, signifying the Greek motto “Philosophia Biou Kybernetes” meaning “Love of Wisdom, the Guide of Life.” A pointing finger and three stars symbolize the three distinguishing principles of this Society–friendship, morality, and literature [learning]. By 1917, the form of this medal was standardized into the golden watch key that you will soon be privileged to wear as a symbol of your academic achievement.
There are two other “signs” of the original society that tradition has preserved. Because the original organization at William and Mary was a secret society, when members met, they greeted each other by drawing the backs of the index and middle fingers of the right hand across the lips from left to right; thus affirming that their lips were sealed. They followed this sign with a secret handshake.
Other Phi Beta Kappa chapters were formed during the Revolutionary War period at Yale and Harvard. The first 50 members of Phi Beta Kappa helped forge and shape the foundations of liberty and governance in this country by serving in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress and later in the Congress of the newly formed United States. Twenty-five more chapters were founded in the nineteenth century, and membership was extended to women in 1875. Seventeen U.S. Presidents, 136 Nobel laureates, and many noted writers, inventors, judges, reformers, and artists, are counted among the membership of this Society.
For more information on Phi Beta Kappa, visit the official national web site maintained by Phi Beta Kappa’s national headquarters.