The Phi Beta Kappa Society
Published in The Key Reporter
The 41st Council of Phi Beta Kappa in Atlanta was a great success, not least in electing to leadership positions distinguished people who will guide the Society’s future. It was also a celebration of 50 years of our Visiting Scholars Program. How better to celebrate than by hearing from, and conversing with, some Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars themselves? In the midst of all this, we authorized six new chapters, and the Council took a major step toward fulfilling the first goal stated in the Society’s strategic plan: to be a more effective advocate of the liberal arts and sciences on the national scene. That step was the adoption of a resolution, in plenary session, that places Phi Beta Kappa in the conversation about the future of American higher education.
In September of this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings accepted a report on that topic from a specially appointed commission, and she very quickly laid out an action plan to pursue its recommendations. The report and information about the commission are available on the Web at ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/index.html. In her action plan, located on the Web at ed.gov/news/speeches/2006/09/09262006.html, the secretary targets access, financial aid and affordability, and institutional accountability for student learning outcomes. These are important issues. They deserve our attention. But missing from the report and from the action plan is any mention of certain aspects of American higher education that have made it, in the commonly heard phrase, “the envy of the world.” By an overwhelming voice vote, the Council endorsed the following statement as a basis for expressing Phi Beta Kappa’s perspective:
"The U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education has issued, in September 2006, a report seriously flawed by omission of the role of the liberal arts and sciences in sustaining the excellence of American higher education.
"Since 1776, the Phi Beta Kappa Society has upheld the conviction that broad undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences, by all students, conducted with rigor, is essential to the accomplishment of higher education’s most important purposes. Phi Beta Kappa has honored outstanding achievement in the liberal arts and sciences and has elected as members many who have gone on to become the nation’s most eminent leaders in government, the private sector, and academe.
"The transformative and empowering consequences of higher education depend upon strong student engagement with the liberal arts and sciences. The Phi Beta Kappa Society, therefore, urges the nation’s higher education leadership, in pursuing appropriate goals of increased access, affordability and accountability, to advance these studies as a wellspring of excellence in American higher education."
Aid, access, and accountability need our best thought. But we must speak up when national policy initiatives are framed by the idea that higher education is no more than a service delivered to a consumer. That metaphor will obscure the most distinctive aspect of education that is truly “higher.” Education in the liberal arts and sciences cannot be adequately captured in the language of consumerism: it specifically aims at the student’s transformation and not at the gratification of pre-existing desires. Its real value may well be made invisible by the model of mass distribution of standardized goods and services.
So we need to talk about why it is a good thing to have thousands of faculties across the country striving for their own vision, why it is a good thing for society to cultivate persons of deliberation and reflection, rather than persons of didactic or apodictic habits. We need to talk about the importance of public understanding of the nature of science and the nature of civilizations and cultures across the globe. We need to talk about the value of a democratic society in which citizens have the help of learning to inform their choices.
In The Washington Post on September 4, Duke University President Richard Brodhead responded to a prepublication draft of the Spellings report. He wrote, in part, that “we need to promote everything in our system that breeds initiative, independence, resourcefulness, and collaboration. One of these is the liberal arts model of education.” This is the conviction expressed in the Council’s resolution, and we join President Brodhead, an initiate of Alpha of Connecticut, in the effort to place these values at the center of the nation’s conversation about higher education.