Phi Beta Kappa has served as a beacon throughout American history, championing enduring values of truth, learning and service since 1776. The COVID-19 pandemic is testing our country’s strength — physically, economically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. I am deeply grateful to all of Phi Beta Kappa’s members, volunteers, staff, and friends, each playing a part in responding to this unfolding crisis. Even as we know that there is much work yet ahead, we can draw upon our shared values to sustain us and help shape a brighter future.
In keeping with the public health priority of social distancing, our national office staff is now carrying on the work of the Society remotely, while our campus-based volunteers take up the challenge of staying connected to students online. “Social distancing” is an important but in some ways misleading term; we are practicing physical distancing while we ramp up virtual connecting. We intend to stay in close touch with our 290 campus-based chapters, our nearly 50 community-based alumni associations, and the broad community that connects with Phi Beta Kappa online and through The American Scholar.
We are especially mindful of the students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 who have earned the opportunity to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa this spring. We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that all 20,000 of these students are able to become members. Even if they will not have the same kind of festive induction that so many of us remember with pride, we can ensure that they receive this important honor. In a time where they will not have their senior recitals, sports contests, plays, and, most poignantly, their graduation, we plan to recognize them as the most accomplished students in the liberal arts and sciences across the country. We will work with chapters who wish to hold virtual induction ceremonies. But even without a formal remote program, those invited to join Phi Beta Kappa by their chapter may accept on-line at www.pbk.org and thereupon become full members of the Society.
We have been also working closely with our partners in higher education, as well as the humanities and arts advocacy communities, to help shape the governmental response to this crisis. Phi Beta Kappa is working alongside the National Humanities Alliance, Americans for the Arts, and the American Council of Education to ensure that the full range of arts, humanities and educational institutions finds needed support during this crisis.
A liberal arts education is the best preparation for great challenges. We are proud of the many Phi Beta Kappa members playing leadership roles at this critical moment. Our members include the doctors and healthcare professional on the front lines, the policy-makers grappling with enormous social and economic issues, and the educators revamping in real time the education of literally millions of primary, secondary and college-level students. The historical perspective with which our education has endowed each of us not only spurs us to act but also enables us to understand these times, helping us to treat each other with respect.
Since our founding in 1776, during the uncertain days of the Revolutionary War, the Society has drawn strength from our founders’ prescient belief that the love of learning will be the pilot of our lives. This founding story reminds us that we possess the inner resources to respond to unprecedented challenges and to make the most of the many hours that may need to be spent alone. Especially in these difficult times, it is the love of learning that will sustain us and propel us forward with the creativity and imagination needed to move beyond this moment of crisis.
Frederick M. Lawrence