Esther Jones Cowan

Esther Jones Cowan

Esther Jones Cowan (ΦBK, Fisk University) is a professor of English at Clark University, and a Phi Beta Kappa senator.


Tell us a bit about your background. 

Despite having lived away from the South for several years, I’m a classic Southerner in my sensibilities: I love good food, good company and conversation; bringing people together over a nice meal to talk, share, exchange ideas for the creation of stronger community. Nothing is more important than human connection, and food and laughter are the best ways, I have found, to connect with others.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you? 

My mother told me that no sacrifice is too great to make for your education: and in your getting of an education, above all, get wisdom! I’m still working on the wisdom piece, but I feel the longer I teach and remain in higher education, the more there is to learn.

What advice do you have for recent inductees to get involved? 

Check out the national ΦBK web site and get involved with an area affiliate—or start one! Phi Beta Kappa has taken on such a strong role in advocacy of the liberal arts, that it’s difficult not to be excited about the efforts to change the conversation on the value of liberal education. They have great resources for independent action on the ΦBK web site, but activism is always more fun when you’re part of a community working together for change.

What do you want to learn next? 

I’ve been considering taking culinary classes in chocolate work. I love chocolate; it’s so versatile, and yet can be so temperamental to work with for the untrained.

Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society? 

As I understand ΦBK, it is an organization that values and recognizes intellectual curiosity, intellectual agility, and intellectual application. These are the habits of mind and practice that cultivate creativity to respond to changing times and needs and resiliency to persist in exploring avenues for growth, change, and problem-solving. Particularly in times of perceived uncertainty and disillusionment such as so many seem to be experiencing, those who possess these skills are well-equipped to see the opportunity in our challenges and pave a different path forward.

Who has made the greatest impact on your life and work? 

The literature of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler have all had a profound effect on how I think about social issues, interpersonal relationships, and self-care. At different points in my life, different works by these authors have moored me and provided an opportunity to reorient my perspective.

Why did you choose to stay involved in Phi Beta Kappa and why is it important to contribute to the Society? 

I have remained involved with ΦBK because I am excited about the activist agenda. If any organization is equipped to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences, it is Phi Beta Kappa.

Why do you care about the organization’s future? 

PBK is one of the most influential organizations existing today to promote the value of a liberal education. The organization stands for values that endure despite the shifting tides of public perception and generate the resiliency of mind and habit that enable society to withstand the ephemeral exigencies of economic uncertainty. We need PBK to continue heralding these values.

What do you feel is the vision of PBK for the 21st century? 

To not only reaffirm, but reassert liberal education as the foundation of a civil society.