Since 1776, Phi Beta Kappa has championed liberal arts and sciences education — rooted in free inquiry and expression — as essential to a flourishing democracy and vibrant culture. The liberal arts and sciences require academic freedom to flourish. Below, find a timeline of key actions that the Society has taken to advance academic freedom throughout our organization’s history.
- The regimented curriculum typical of early American colleges allowed little opportunity for student discussion. Students organized the Society as a cultural grounding force in turbulent times. They met “sub rosa,” or in secret, to give members the freedom to discuss any topic. Early members chose to focus activities on the “literary business” of holding forensics and debates. The debates often looked at both sides of an issue in a spirit of “rationality” during the Revolutionary War.
- On the eve of the contested 1800 election between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, Phi Beta Kappa became the focus of an anonymous petition in the Connecticut Courant on July 29, 1799, calling for its dissolution because of its origin as a secret society. Both the Yale and Harvard chapters debated the issue and declined.
- When Anti-masonic agitation in 1831 prompted much discussion about the ΦBK oath, Harvard's chapter dropped the requirement for secrecy. This move probably saved the Society from further criticism and helped distinguish ΦBK, with its intellectual emphasis, from social fraternities that made their appearance around this time.
- Harvard President Charles Eliot identified academic freedom as a defining characteristic of American higher education in an address delivered to Cornell University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter for its 25th anniversary. He explored three separate but related areas: academic freedom for faculty, for students in choice of studies and attendance at religious exercises, and for institutions with university governance as fundamentally different from government and industries. In Eliot’s opinion, all three areas required freedom from outside interference to achieve the democratic goals of the institution.
- In the wake of the Scopes Trials, the 1925 Triennial passed a resolution on the freedom of thought and teaching:
- In view of the present tendency to suppress freedom of thought and speech in our colleges, the Fifteenth National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa desires to put itself on record as insisting on the academic freedom that is essential to the pursuit of truth. It is also the sense of the Council that no college that gives evidence of denying this freedom shall be considered worthy of a charter of Phi Beta Kappa.
- The American Scholar Editor Hiram Haydn consistently strove for diversity in subject matter and points of view as a guiding principle for the Society’s venerable quarterly magazine. In 1944, Haydn nominated Max Lerner and actor Paul Robeson to the editorial board generating outcry demanding their removal because of their political leanings. Under Haydn’s leadership the magazine also published articles critical of repression when Senator McCarthy alleged communist infiltration of the federal government, schools and libraries censored books, and legislators tried to impose loyalty oaths on faculty members in the 1950s.
- As the post-WWII red scare intensified, Phi Beta Kappa’s Executive Committee and Committee on Qualifications issued a statement on the freedom of teaching printed in the Autumn 1949 The Key Reporter.
- "As a Society committed since 1776 to the promotion of liberal studies and the ideal of freedom in education, Phi Beta Kappa is firmly opposed to efforts, from either the extreme right or the extreme left, to restrict within our institutions of learning the impartial analysis and evaluation of any and all literary, political, economic, social or religious tenets."
- "The never-ending search for truth by the open and inquiring mind is a basic necessity for the survival of the democratic way of life. To the fundamental concepts of our democratic tradition, including the freedom to teach or publish the results of honest and competent inquiry, the overwhelming majority of college teachers are deeply devoted. To impose upon them loyalty tests not required of other professions, or for outside non-professional bodies to investigate their professional competence or integrity, affects adversely the morale of both college teachers and their students. In institutions where such practices obtain, teachers are being intimidated and students are being led to believe that colleges dare no longer engage in the disinterested pursuit of truth,but must become instruments of propaganda. Phi Beta Kappa is bound to be concerned whenever conditions prevail in our schools and colleges which threaten in such ways the American principle of freedom of teaching."
- "The Committee on Qualifications is required by the Society's constitution to inform itself regarding the status and practices of institutions sheltering chapters of Phi Beta Kappa which may jeopardize the Society's ideals and to report such practices to the Society for appropriate action."
- "The Committee feels that at this time it is especially important to call upon all the institutions with which its chapters are associated to withstand the emotional pressure, from whatever quarter, to substitute dogma for critical analysis."
Developed from Phi Beta Kappa in American Life: The First Two Hundred Years. As the Society approaches its 250th anniversary, it will continue to gather additional resources and update this page. To suggest a resource, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.