Eight Is Enough
On April 2, 1890, when the University of Kansas was a mere 24 years old, eight KU professors with degrees from such distinguished East Coast institutions as Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, and the University of Rochester, met to mark another milestone on the University’s march to the front ranks of higher education.
In their student days, all eight men had become members of Phi Beta Kappa – the most venerable and distinguished liberal arts honor society in the country. On this day in KU history, they completed the formal steps that would enable high-achieving young scholars on Mount Oread to take advantage of the same opportunity.
The leaders of this endeavor comprised many of the usual suspects, i.e. many of the same men who repeatedly devoted themselves to the improvement of the University of Kansas in its early days, offering time and effort far beyond their required teaching duties.
The group included Francis Huntington Snow, one of KU’s original three faculty members, a professor of natural science, and the soon-to-be fifth chancellor of the University. He was a Williams College man, as were two other fellow organizers, the cousins James and Arthur Canfield, the former serving as a KU history professor and the latter as a KU French professor.
Languages professor David H. Robinson, who had been educated at the University of Rochester and was also a member of the original KU faculty triumvirate, was on board, as were two Harvard grads, French and German professor Max Winkler, and English professor Arthur R. Marsh. Rounding out the group were physics and engineering professor Lucien I. Blake, an alumnus of Amherst, and Greek professor A.M. Wilcox, a Yale man.
The previous year, these men had petitioned the National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa at its triennial meeting to grant KU a charter, asking permission to locate a branch of the prestigious honor society on Mount Oread. According to KU historian Clifford Griffin, the national governing body, “recognized … the quality of both the teaching and the research of the faculty”; and as such, their request was duly granted.
In establishing the Alpha of Kansas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at KU, these eight professors were planting the honor society’s 31st flag, and its first west of the Mississippi River. (The Beta chapter of Kansas, at Kansas State University, would not be founded until 1974.)
Before Johns Hopkins, before Princeton and Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan all received their charters for Phi Beta Kappa chapters, the University of Kansas was already there. Snow presided as president, calling the inaugural meeting of KU’s PBK chapter to order and commencing debate on which deserving scholars they should initiate into their ranks. Alpha of Kansas was now in business.
The organization that welcomed KU into its ranks already possessed a long and illustrious history. It had inducted scores of promising young intellectuals who would go on to play leading roles in American government and industry, such as future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, President John Quincy Adams, and cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney.
Originally established by five male undergraduates at the College of William & Mary in December 1776, just months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the organization initially was conceived as a secret student society that would be both highly selective and maintain a steadfast adherence to study and learning.
Members selected a Greek motto, “Philosophia Biou Kybernetes” or “Love of Wisdom the Guide of Life,” which was shortened to Phi Beta Kappa, representing the first Greek letter of each word. This eventually became the organization's formal name as well.
During its first four years at W&M, Phi Beta Kappa initiated about 50 members in induction ceremonies complete with requisite blindfolds, and also authorized the formation of two branch chapters at Yale and Harvard. Branching out would prove fortuitous: Revolutionary War upheaval in Virginia caused the W&M chapter to disband in 1781, and it would not be re-established there until 1852.
Meanwhile Phi Beta Kappa took root in the Northeast and began to thrive. However, its reputation as a "secret society" did cause it to get caught up in the mass public commotion over the Masons and other secret organizations that swept America in the 1820s. In 1831, Phi Beta Kappa officially abolished its pretensions to secrecy and became a perfectly transparent organization. The six existing chapters transformed themselves into “purely honorary” societies, gathering only once or twice a year for business and induction purposes.
By the 1870s, there were more than 20 Phi Beta Kappa chapters in existence, though still predominantly confined to eastern institutions and without a formal national organization. Historically an all-white, all-male preserve, the society was put on the path to full equality in 1875, then again in 1877, when the University of Vermont chapter inducted, respectively, its first female and African-American members.
Perhaps the most important structural change to the honor society occurred in 1883 when, on the initiative of the Harvard chapter, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was formed. This move prompted the drafting of a new constitution, a permanent executive and legislative body, and standardized (albeit subjective) admissions criteria.
It also created the machinery and impetus to expand the society nationwide. Each new chapter would endeavor to “recognize and encourage scholarship, friendship, and cultural interests … among students and graduates of American colleges.” Over the next 50 years, the number of member institutions exploded from 25 to 132. KU was among the early entrants in this expansion.
When KU obtained its Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1890, “the University was just emerging from the tadpole stage,” recalled Arthur Canfield. “Only a year before it had suffered the amputation of its caudal appendage” – Canfield was referring to KU’s Preparatory Department, which taught students who were not ready for college work – “and was just learning to wiggle without its tail.”
Indeed, as the September 1990 edition of Kansas Alumni observed on the 100th anniversary of KU’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, the original request for a charter from the society “didn’t seem to warrant approval, considering KU’s youth and the fact that no other Midwestern state university yet possessed a chapter, ‘not even the mother of them, Michigan.’”
Even Canfield once admitted, “[Our] petition may well have seemed bold to the point even of presumptuousness.” Naturally, he added, everyone was gratified and honored when “Phi Beta Kappa, conservative, dedicated to the idea of superiority and distinction, jealous of standards, hoary with the tradition of the East, … set [its] seal of approval on this young upstart.”
(Coincidentally, that same year, KU also received a charter from the scientific honor society of Sigma Xi, becoming only the fourth University nationwide to establish a chapter. Here, too, Profs. Snow and Blake played a leading role, as did Prof. Lewis Lindsay Dyche, who was developing a reputation as a naturalist and taxidermist.)
According to the minutes of that initial Phi Beta Kappa gathering at KU, the first task was to choose officers, though it is unclear on what basis they were selected. Technically, Robinson had seniority. He had been a member of Phi Beta Kappa since 1859. But this trumped Snow, who had been a member since 1862, by only three years.
However the decision eventually was made, the fact that Snow was under consideration to become KU chancellor – the actual offer would come nine days later – hardly could have hurt his candidacy for the Kansas chapter presidency. (James Canfield, incidentally, had also been considered for the chancellor’s job at one time, but his “radical” and outspoken anti-protectionist views in heavily agricultural Kansas had extinguished his chances.) In the end, Snow was indeed elected president, James Canfield became vice-president, Arthur Canfield was named secretary, and Max Winkler was chosen treasurer.
But for all its standing as a national society, let alone the undoubted significance the organizers of KU’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter placed on its establishment, the news media of the time took little notice of the achievement. There was only one small item in a student paper called the Kansas Review. In its edition of April 16, 1890, the publication noted the honor society’s formation by commenting, “The jealous ones say that they would not be members of a fraternity composed of bookworms and faculty pets, but the chosen ones feel proud of the honor, as well they may.”
Other than that, as KU Greek professor Wilson Sterling noted in a 1930 talk marking the 40th anniversary of the chapter’s establishment on Mount Oread, the founding of the first chapter west of the Mississippi “slipped into the University almost as quietly as the falling dew.” The arrival of Phi Beta Kappa caused “little commotion,” observed Sterling, who added that a careful scan of the files of city newspapers for 1890 yielded “not a single mention of our founding,” and “no mention of the name Phi Beta Kappa.” But as Sterling explained, “Phi Beta Kappa neither courts nor fears publicity, as it rests on wholly different sanctions.”
In addition to the dearth of media coverage, the new chapter also seems to have lacked any concrete selection criteria for new members, such as a minimum grade-point-average. The Alpha of Kansas charter simply called for election of new members “primarily from the best scholars of the graduating classes of the University,” with the added stipulation that “good moral character shall be a qualification for membership.”
(Even today, the qualifications for membership, as defined by the Constitution of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, are simply “high scholarship in the arts and sciences and good character.” Each chapter thus sets its own particular academic benchmarks under this rubric. As of 2004, KU required at least a 3.65 cumulative GPA, 105 credit hours and evidence of having taken rigorous coursework in the liberal arts and sciences.)
By these somewhat subjective standards, the brand new Kansas chapter inducted five KU undergraduates from the Class of 1890. These were Daniel E. Esterley, William Hill, Fred Liddeke, Edwin E. Slosson and the chapter’s charter female member, Nettie D. Goodell. Indeed, after the University of Vermont’s 1875 precedent of initiating women into its Phi Beta Kappa chapter, all other affiliated chapters would eventually, often grudgingly, follow suit, though many not until well into the twentieth century. Alpha of Kansas, on the other hand, was a champion of gender equality from the outset – and then some. Indeed, by 1939, out of a total of 1,358 living and deceased members, it could boast 786 females and only 572 males.
The second tier of membership allowed for the induction of “those graduates of the University whose post-graduate work entitles them to such honor.” This resulted in the selection of KU law professor (and future Board of Regents member) J. Willis Gleed from the Class of 1879, and German and literature professor William H. Carruth from the Class of 1880. At the chapter’s second meeting on June 10, 1890, Alice G. (Boughton) Blackwelder from the Class of 1875 was also inducted under these auspices.
Chapter records do not specify whether the inductees participated in the traditional key ceremony at that initial April 2 meeting or if it took place at the Commencement gathering on June 10. Whenever it occurred, the bestowing of the Phi Beta Kappa key is a momentous event that hearkens back to the society’s eighteenth-century founding at William & Mary. At that time, the Virginians chose the Latin words “Societas Philosophiae” (meaning “Society of Lovers of Learning”) as the name of their organization, which was often abbreviated as SP. (Later the Greek letters Phi Beta Kappa would supplant these.) Additionally, the founders adopted a silver medal as the organization’s emblem, with “PBK” and a hand pointing to three stars (denoting Friendship, Morality and Literature) on the front and the letters SP on the back.
By the mid-1800s, the medal had been changed to gold, and secret handshakes and blindfolds were no longer a part of the initiation. Nonetheless, the principles of strong moral character, high academic achievement and a lifelong pursuit of learning endured and were explained to the first group of KU inductees in 1890. Apparently, not every part of this ceremony was solemn and serious. In a moment of levity, charter member Prof. A.M. Wilcox “explained that the letters SP did not mean, as the envious non-elect were wont to say, ‘small potatoes.’”
A third criteria allowed the Alpha of Kansas chapter to confer honorary memberships upon those “distinguished in letters, science or education,” though the KU chapter has tended to be quite fastidious in this realm. But, as botany professor W.C. Stevens noted in his 1940 work, The Fiftieth Anniversary of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi at the University of Kansas, “The one departure of the chapter from a policy of conservatism was the adoption of a rule permitting the election of graduate students. Kansas Alpha was, in fact, one of the early chapters to admit graduate students.”
For roughly the first 20 years of its existence, the Kansas Alpha chapter was, in a way, a throwback to the society’s founding in revolutionary Virginia, when it was also a social and fraternal organization that regularly hosted intellectual entertainments. Kansas Alpha chapter meetings were held at least twice a year in alternating members’ homes to hear and discuss a prepared address given by “the person previously chosen for this purpose, and for social enjoyment.” Additionally, each new initiate was required to give a formal toast, another vestige of the founding generation at William & Mary. By 1910, though, less dynamic leadership in the KU chapter allowed these practices to expire, and the sole gathering became an annual business meeting and induction ceremony during Commencement.
The roster of KU alums inducted into Phi Beta Kappa now numbers over 5,000. Some of the most prominent of those elected as undergraduates include: German professor and Kansas suffragette leader Alberta Corbin (after whom Corbin Hall is named); CLAS Dean Olin Templin (namesake of Templin Hall); and German and literature professor William Herbert Carruth and English professor R.D. O’Leary (namesakes of Carruth and O’Leary Hall). Additionally, Leon N. Flint – journalism professor, the first Alumni Association secretary and the half-namesake of Stauffer-Flint Hall – was a Phi Beta Kappan from KU, as was longtime Saturday Evening Post editor Ben Hibbs. Longtime KU administrator and University Chancellor Raymond Nichols (1972-1973) was known fondly as “Mr. Phi Beta Kappa” for his 45-year-long stint as chapter secretary and terms as both president and vice-president of Alpha of Kansas.
Other distinguished Phi Beta Kappans who have been associated with the University and were awarded alumni memberships are Chancellors Frank Strong (1902-1919), Ernest H. Lindley (1920-1939), and Deane W. Malott (1939-1951). Furthermore, honorary memberships have been bestowed upon Chancellors E. Laurence Chalmers (1969-1972) and Robert E. Hemenway (1995- ). Perhaps the most famous honorary recipient was the “Sage of Emporia” himself, William Allen White, who was welcomed into Alpha of Kansas in 1934. (White attended KU from 1886-1889 but did not complete a degree; even so, his lackluster grades while a student surely would have disqualified him from election to Phi Beta Kappa. However, post-KU, he embarked upon what would become a highly distinguished literary and journalistic career, which garnered him his PBK key.)
The number inducted each year has, over the decades, varied markedly. According to the Alpha of Kansas Constitution, “the selection from each graduating class shall not exceed one-fifth of the number graduating,” and by all accounts the total initiates have never even approached that figure. Of course, as the graduating classes have enlarged, so too has the number of those inducted into KU’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. In the early 1890s, rarely were more than 10 selected annually; as the mid-twentieth century approached, that number often exceeded 50. On May 17, 2003, Alpha of Kansas inducted 86 new Phi Beta Kappans at the Kansas Union’s Woodruff Auditorium.
During its more than 200-year history, countless Phi Beta Kappans have stood up to defend the efficacy and enduring value of a liberal arts education, often when trends towards the more “pragmatic arts” have threatened to overwhelm or render it obsolete. A recent representative defender was Dean James Muyskens of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. On May 19, 1990, he gave Phi Beta Kappa’s Centennial Address, his topic being “Liberal Arts in the ‘90s.”
Muyskens voiced a passionate lament about how “American children today … are bombarded with seductive trivialities” that all but prohibit them from being “challenged by the drama of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller,” moved by the “ageless stories of Homer” or inspired by the “courage of Frederick Douglass.”
In setting forth the quandary American colleges and universities have faced concerning the promotion of a liberal arts education, as opposed to one devoted to the hard sciences, business and engineering, Muyskens paraphrased Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 work Democracy in America. Americans, the French visitor observed, “tend to value education only as a ladder to success and not for its intrinsic worth.” In this vein, Muyskens added, “More and more, the most pragmatic consideration of all, economic development, is the driving force behind what is funded in higher education and what is not. Emphasis is on results and on what is thought to be of immediate benefit to society.”
Echoing Phi Beta Kappa’s principal argument for the liberal arts, Muyskens described those who immerse themselves in history, philosophy, poetry and great literature as ones who can find “order in the chaos.” Since its inception in 1890, the members of Alpha of Kansas, though their education, have been prepared to do just this. But anyone, he added, who cherishes the liberal arts can “escape the confines, transcend the limitations, and rise above the business of getting and spending to the realm of imagination where curiosity, excitement, puzzlement, skepticism, and enthusiasm are their own rewards.”
Today’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, Muyskens concluded, “is one of the bonds that unites us with the adventurers in liberal learning of the past and of the future.” And if one thinks of them not simply as the liberal arts but, rather, as the “liberating arts,” then “those undergraduates in 1776 [will not have] labored in vain.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas