History and Current Mission
Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard College was established under a charter dated December 4, 1779. The charter was granted, along with one for Yale, by the original society founded three years earlier at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The charter was brought from there to Harvard by Elisha Parmele A.B. 1778, who initiated four juniors on the day before Commencement 1781. The first meeting of the new chapter was held on September 8, 1781. That makes Harvard's chapter the oldest in continuous existence (the William and Mary and Yale chapters having been inactive for different periods). It was one of the twenty-five chapters at American colleges that formed the United Chapters, the ancestor of the present national Phi Beta Kappa Society, in 1883.
The original society adopted a Greek motto, PHILOSOPHIA BIOU KYBERNETES, "Philosophy the guide of life," the initials of which furnished the name Phi Beta Kappa. There was a medal, the precursor of the present gold key, and an elaborate and secret initiation. (The oath of secrecy was dropped in 1831.) From being a social and debating club in its early years, Phi Beta Kappa developed in the nineteenth century into an undergraduate honor society. The constitution of the chapter still states that "the purpose of Phi Beta Kappa is to recognize and encourage scholarship, friendship, and cultural interests."
Phi Beta Kappa, Iota of Massachusetts at Radcliffe College was established in 1914. The Harvard and Radcliffe chapters combined in 1995 and joined names to become Alpha Iota of Massachusetts.
Election to Alpha Iota of Masachusetts signifies that an undergraduate's course of study is distinguished by excellence, reach, originality, and rigor. Membership in PBK is an honor bestowed on those whose coursework demonstrates not only high achievement, but also breadth of interest, depth of understanding, and intellectual honesty. Twenty-four juniors are elected each spring, forty-eight seniors each fall, and in the final election shortly before Commencement, a further number sufficient to bring the total membership to no more than ten per cent of the graduating class. (See Eligibility and Election.)
A history of Alpha of Massachusetts was written by Reginald H. Phelps ("Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard: A bicentennial history") as part of the program for the two hundredth anniversary of the chapter in 1981. A copy of this booklet is in the Harvard University Archives (HUD 3684.281.2). An earlier publication, the Catalogue of the Harvard College Chapter of ΦΒΚ Alpha of Massachusetts (1970), gives a list of members and officers to that date.
The national Phi Beta Kappa Society has as its wider mission to foster and recognize excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. More information on the history and activities of the national Society is available at its website (www.pbk.org).