Phi Beta Kappa, the most prestigious of honor societies, has been known primarily as something to get into (or, from an institutional perspective, how to get a chapter on campus). But beyond that, the organization's purpose has been less clear. Sure, it publishes a highly regarded quarterly, The American Scholar, but you don't need to be in the society to read that.
The society has decided, however, to start speaking out on public issues affecting the liberal arts. And in the first resolution on a public policy issue anyone at the society can remember, Phi Beta Kappa is taking a stand against the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. A resolution adopted by the society "seriously flawed by omission of the role of the liberal arts and sciences in sustaining the excellence of American higher education" and called on college leaders to insist that the liberal arts' importance be considered in any reforms of higher education.
The resolution was adopted by the Council of Phi Beta Kappa -- its ultimate governing body. Not only did the group adopt the resolution, but it took what for the society are significant political steps of sending it to Secretary Margaret Spellings and telling reporters about it. Phi Beta Kappa isn't likely to be taking stands on issues all the time -- its council meets once every three years and happened to be meeting after the Spellings Commission released its recommendations. But the society plans to speak out more and to play a role beyond just honoring scholarship.
Phi Beta Kappa's official mission statement calls for its role to be "the recognition and advocacy of excellence in the liberal arts and sciences," John Churchill, secretary of the society, said in an interview Friday. But he added that there has "been a certain tension over the years on whether we were simply in the business of recognition."
Now, however, he said, "we have made a turn toward more advocacy." He said that members were inspired to act when they read the Spellings Commission report and that while they had a range of views about what was in there, they were stunned and upset by what wasn't included. "There was just little or nothing about the role of the liberal arts," Churchill said.
"We are all about the liberal arts and sciences, and it all comes down to the conviction that these studies are very important for individuals flourishing, for the life of a democratic society," Churchill said, "and here's a report about the future of higher education with scarcely a mention of these central values."
Phi Beta Kappa may also get more involved in suggesting ways to apply liberal arts to promoting a good society. Churchill said that the society was working with the Teagle Foundation to identify ways to promote good "deliberative" thinking. Churchill said that the society believes it can provide an important voice by getting more involved in public policy, and also show its relevance. At some new chapters, Phi Beta Kappa gets turned down by some people invited to join, and the society has been concerned that people don't see the group's significance.
For now, while Churchill is pleased with the society's direction, and thinks it will add an important voice, he doesn't expect to become a Washington power player. So far, Spellings hasn't responded to his letter sharing the society's resolution.