President Remarks 2002

Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 13, 2002
President’s Remarks:  Freedom and Breadth of Inquiry

Traditionally, Phi Beta Kappa has opposed granting membership to students whose educational goals are primarily vocational as opposed to liberal (Manual for chapter officers, 1999-2000). Although there is disagreement regarding what a liberal education may be, there is agreement that “it is not difficult to distinguish between broad cultivation and technical competence” (Phi Beta Kappa: The founding of new chapters, 1985, pp. 3-4). Liberal education “is the kind of instruction that educates men and women in the fullest sense of the word: intellectually, ethically, socially. Thus, membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an honor conferred in recognition of scholarly attainment in the liberal arts and sciences” (Manual for chapter officers, 1999-2000, pp. 1-2), and “it may be assumed that courses in literature, languages, philosophy, religion, the fine arts, history, the social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences will form the substance of a liberal education” (Phi Beta Kappa: The founding of new chapters, 1985, pp. 3-4).

However, there is frequent criticism of Phi Beta Kappa for its restriction of membership to students majoring in the liberal arts or to students majoring in vocational areas but who have nevertheless also achieved broad training in the liberal arts and sciences; and there is recent criticism of Phi Beta Kappa’s efforts to persuade more students to consider majoring in the liberal arts rather than in vocational training. In a letter to the editor of the Winter 2002 The Key Reporter, the quarterly newsletter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the writer Jonathan Todres, stated: “I also welcome the news of Phi Beta Kappa’s effort to encourage students to pursue a liberal arts education. I believe, however, that we must do more than focus on young students, many of whom today face the prospect of leaving college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from educational loans. Given that today’s students have the burden of loan repayment and the pressures of an increasingly competitive job market, we hardly can fault those who turn to business or engineering, instead of liberal arts, in the hope of gaining greater security” (p. 14).

In a letter to the editor which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of The Key Reporter, the writer, Edward Farkas, an engineer, chastised Phi Beta Kappa for its goal of countering the increasing numbers of students who elect to enter career-training programs rather than pursue undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. He asked whether we really want to discourage students from going into such areas as engineering, medicine, nursing. He also criticized Phi Beta Kappa’s concern that we are channeling more and more of our brightest students into the narrow field of technology, saying that he did not think Phi Beta Kappa should take the position of belittling any field of study as narrow. He also stated that he was not aware that only liberal arts students receive Phi Beta Kappa keys.

The Key Reporter asked Douglas Foard, former Phi Beta Kappa secretary, to respond to the letter. Foard stated that he had attended many initiation ceremonies and, indeed, had observed that some engineering, computer science, and even business majors had earned the right to wear Phi Beta Kappa’s key, but that they were exceptional students in that in addition to the demanding requirements of such majors, these students also met the Society’s standard of at least 90 hours of liberal arts courses and that, in many cases, these students had either carried a terrific overload of courses to become eligible for membership or extended their undergraduate studies beyond the traditional four years. Foard went on to say Phi Beta Kappa has always been about the freedom and breadth of inquiry, and borrowing Linda Pratt’s words from the American Association of University Professor’s November-December 1994 issue of Academe, he quoted ‘These are the objectives of liberal education, and though they may not seem to sell well in the marketplace, they are in the end the best collateral we have to secure the future.’

I agree with former Secretary Foard’s statement that Phi Beta Kappa has always been about the freedom and breadth of inquiry. In my view, the liberal arts represent the methods of inquiry we humans have evolved in our attempt to understand the human condition and to understand the nature of the universe. There are many methods of inquiry; to name a few: theological, philosophical, literary, artistic, historical, empirical. We have different methods of inquiry because we have different propositions to test. As examples, compare the following propositions: 

Proposition number 1: Assisted suicide is wrong.

Proposition number 2: At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

What are the criteria for the truth or falsity of these propositions?

My interpretation would be that the first proposition requires the philosophical method of inquiry and that the second proposition requires the empirical method of inquiry, because they are qualitatively different kinds of propositions.

The Bell System is a highly technical company that hires numerous engineers. Bell has conducted long-term studies of the characteristics of its managers and found that it is liberal arts majors, not engineers, who move most rapidly up the managerial ladder and who are most likely to reach the higher levels of management (Beck, R. E. Career Patterns: The liberal arts major in Bell System Management. Association of American Colleges).

Perhaps because of their training in the liberal arts, liberal arts majors were found to be higher in administrative skills such as planning, organizing, and decision making; interpersonal skills such as face-to-face-leadership and oral communication; verbal and quantitative skills, and advancement motivation.

Finally, I want to quote from another letter to the editor which appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of The Key Reporter. In reaction to the tragic events of September 11, the writer, James Katzner, stated, “Many religious radicals believe the way they do because that’s all they know. In my mind there couldn’t be a more powerful argument for liberal arts education. Through my own liberal education, I learned about various cultures and their contributions to society, and perhaps most importantly how to be a lifelong learner.” The writer then quoted from a letter written by President Sullivan to the William & Mary community: ‘This nation was born out of a fight for freedom, including the freedom that education protects. We are once again engaged in such a fight, and as was the case in Jefferson’s time, it is precisely this education–and liberal arts education–that will ensure we prevail’ ” (p. 14).

Robert Cowan, President
Delta of Missouri Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa

Delta of Missouri Chapter