70 years of excellence in the liberal arts and sciences
Phi Beta Kappa
Q & A with Alan Silva, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Jane Carroll, Associate Professor of History
'LOVE OF WISDOM, the guide of life.' It's the translation of Phi Beta Kappa, the country's oldest, most prestigious honors society. This October, the College of St. Catherine will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its chapter of Phi Beta Kappa -- the first chapter at a Catholic college and still the only chapter at a Catholic college in Minnesota.
Founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary as an organization to foster and recognize excellence in the liberal arts and sciences, Phi Beta Kappa has since grown to include 265 chapters and more than 500,000 members across the United States.
Since 1937, St. Catherine's Phi Beta Kappa members have gone on to become medical doctors, lawyers and judges, college presidents, writers, musicians, high school teachers, peace activists, businesswomen and heads of religious organizations. Today membership in the College's chapter, the Gamma Chapter of Minnesota, stands at more than 1,000.
As preparations for the chapter's anniversary take place, Jane Carroll, associate professor of history and president of the College's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and Alan Silva, dean of arts and sciences, discuss the significance of this landmark and what Phi Beta Kappa means to the College of St. Catherine.
Q: How does one become a member of the organization, and how many students are initiated each year?
Jane: A potential member must major in liberal arts and sciences; be of high moral character; rank in the top 10 percent of her class as a senior or the top 7 percent as a junior; and demonstrate understanding of the liberal arts education. Usually about four juniors and 20 seniors are initiated annually.
In addition to the national criteria, we also invite students to write an essay on the role of liberal arts education in their lives. This gives an indication of intellectual development beyond the student's G.P.A. Often, it's not until a student is invited into Phi Beta Kappa that she really reflects on the meaning of a liberal arts education. The essay gives her an opportunity to think about her experiences in the liberal arts and articulate those in a significant way.
Q: What is the significance of St. Catherine's being the first Catholic college to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter?
Alan: The moment I arrived at St. Catherine's I was struck by the high value that Phi Beta Kappa has in the College — because it was the first Catholic college in the country to have a chapter, and it's still the only Catholic college in Minnesota with a chapter. Phi Beta Kappa is a mark of distinction for us, a hallmark of academic excellence.
Jane: At the time the College gained the chapter, there also was still a lot of prejudice toward Catholic institutions and a fear that these institutions would be overly controlled by the Church or would try to convert students. But Catholic higher education historically has emphasized open intellectual inquiry through the liberal arts and sciences.
Q: How does Phi Beta Kappa underscore the College's commitment to the liberal arts?
Alan: A liberal arts education is the foundation of everything we do at St. Catherine's, and Phi Beta Kappa is a celebration of the liberal arts. One has to be a topnotch student to get into the society. The initiation is a moment to remind students of the power of a liberal arts education.
Jane: There has always been an emphasis on the liberal arts at St. Catherine's. When the Sisters of St. Joseph founded the College they modeled the curriculum on the University of Chicago, and their emphasis was on educating the whole woman. When applying for the Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1935, Sister Jean Marie Bonnet wrote a 138-page report highlighting the College's attributes as a liberal arts institution. In it she wrote, "We require no religious or political qualifications and conditions of our teachers. The teachers are trusted to present the truths they know and to seek more truths or greater truths."
Q: What does the Phi Beta Kappa chapter do at the College?
Jane: The chapter participates in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar program, which brings to campus scholars in the fields of natural and social sciences, the fine arts and philosophy. This year Sandra Harding, Ph.D., professor of education and women's studies at UCLA, will talk about the philosophy of science in women's studies. We've been fortunate to have visiting scholars every year for the past five years. Not every institution gets them.
Alan: The Visiting Scholar program is a way of promoting the chapter to the whole community. The scholars spend several days on campus, interacting with students, faculty and staff. They also give a public address that's free and open to the public.
Q: What do you hope to see students get out of becoming members of Phi Beta Kappa?
Jane: We hope membership in the society will make students serve as examples of what can be accomplished with a liberal arts education. Part of the initiation oath is a pledge to continue to participate in liberal arts education and uphold it as a value in our society.
Alan: St. Catherine's is always trying to encourage students to find ways to showcase their talents, and Phi Beta Kappa is one pathway for them to do that. We see Phi Beta Kappa as a merger of our emphasis on strong values and intellectual inquiry.
Q: How will St. Catherine's celebrate the 70th anniversary of its Phi Beta Kappa chapter?
Alan: The theme for the 2007-08 academic year is "Academic Excellence." The Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar is a great way to kick off the year and will be followed by a big birthday celebration for the chapter in October. Then we have the initiation in the spring, so it will be a whole year of working with Phi Beta Kappa and our theme.
Jane: It's not just about the 70th anniversary of the chapter but, more broadly, celebrating the liberal arts and sciences as the core educational experience of St. Catherine's. We'd like alumnae to come back and talk about how a liberal arts education has made a difference in their lives.
Jane Lamm Carroll '80 was initiated into Phi Beta Kappa in 1979, when she was a junior at St. Kate's. She became active in the chapter again when she returned to St. Catherine's as a faculty member in 1996 and has been president for five years.
Alan Silva oversees and supports the Phi Beta Kappa chapter as part of his role as Dean of Arts and Sciences. The president of the chapter reports to him — and he encourages students who are invited to apply to become members of Phi Beta Kappa.
Tom Vogel is a Minneapolis freelance writer who has worked in higher education as an instructor of literature and composition and as a communications specialist.
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