Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 52. College Secret Societies; Phi Beta Kappa

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXIII. Education

§ 52. College Secret Societies; Phi Beta Kappa

A characteristic feature of American life is its tendency to voluntary organization. Perhaps as a substitute for the pomp and ceremony of an aristocratic society the tendency reveals itself in the many secret societies with their elaborate ceremonials. This national characteristic shows itself in American college life in the numerous Greek letter societies or fraternities. Only the earliest of these, founded as an honour society with political purposes also, has furnished occasion for a considerable literary product, much of it of superior quality. The Phi Beta Kappa was organized at the College of William and Mary in 1776 with membership based on scholarly attainments. Chapters were soon to be found in the leading institutions of the country. The annual meetings of these constituent chapters have been the occasion of many notable addresses or poems. Emerson’s The American Scholar was written for such an occasion (1837). The list of these productions is a long one, most of them having an academic significance. As illustrative of this type may be mentioned: The American Doctrine of Liberty, by George William Curtis; The Scholar of the Republic by Wendell Phillips; Academic Freedom by Charles W. Eliot; What is Vital in Christianity? by Josiah Royce; The Mystery of Education by Barrett Wendell; The Spirit of Learning by Woodrow Wilson. These with many others of similar excellence are scattered throughout the century.