Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and largest academic honor society, was founded during the American Revolution on Dec. 5, 1776, by five students at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. It was the first society to have a Greek letter name, and, in its early years, it introduced the essential characteristics of such societies: an oath of secrecy (discarded in 1831), a badge, mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws and an elaborate initiation ritual.
For more than two and a quarter centuries, the society has embraced the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. Laptops have replaced quill pens, but these ideas, symbolized on Phi Beta Kappa’s distinctive gold key, still lay the foundations of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience and creative endeavor.
Today, there are chapters at 276 colleges and universities, representing only 10 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning. More than half a million members, comprising the top 10 percent of arts and sciences graduates of these distinguished institutions, have been selected for Phi Beta Kappa membership.
The name Phi Beta Kappa is drawn from the Greek initials of the society’s motto: “Love of learning is the guide of life.” These Greek initials are present on the society's symbol of the key. Also present on the key is a finger pointing toward three stars, symbolizing the ambitions of young scholars and the three principles of the society: friendship, morality and learning. On the reverse of the key are the letters S P representing the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, the historic date of the society's founding and the name of the member owning the key.