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Spotlight

John ChurchillPhi Beta Kappa Secretary John Churchill
Interviewed by PSA-PBK Trustees

John Churchill, secretary of the national Phi Beta Kappa Society, will be in Seattle on February 20, 2013, speaking at PSA-PBK's 60th anniversary dinner at the Seattle Yacht Club.

Prior to the event, some of the association's trustees asked Dr. Churchill a few questions about Phi Beta Kappa and the future of the liberal arts and sciences.


The Phi Beta Kappa Society is in the planning stages of a National Advocacy Initiative. What role will the associations, including PSA-PBK, have in the planning and implementation of this initiative? What other priorities/initiatives does the Phi Beta Kappa Society plan to address?

The National Headquarters

The staff and programs of the national headquarters will be focused on integrating the traditional, on-going programs of Phi Beta Kappa into a coherent focus on the National Advocacy Initiative. The Visiting Scholar Program, the Awards Program, the Social Media activities, our outreach and encouragement toward chapters and associations, our development efforts through Daniller and email, The Key Reporter and The American Scholar, both on-line and in print, as well as the speaking activities of the Secretary and members of the Senate, while retaining their own forms, functions, and governance, should be considered as contributing agencies of Phi Beta Kappa in conveying the message of advocacy for the liberal arts and sciences. This project should bring focus, consistency, and unifying purpose to the Society's activities across the board.

The duration of this aspect of the Advocacy Initiative will be from January, 2013, through the 44th Triennial Council, in Denver, October 8-10, 2015. Throughout this period, the prospect of continuing an advocacy emphasis as an enduring dimension of the Society's programs will be examined.

The Chapters, Associations, and Districts

Coordinated by staff of the National Headquarters, to include the Secretary, Associate Secretary, their Assistant, the National Advocacy Initiative Director, his or her Assistant, and the officers responsible for the Society's various programs, a series of meetings will be held in cities across the country (TBD), drawing on the interest and talents represented in Phi Beta Kappa chapters and associations. The meetings will be dual-purposed: (1) They will themselves be media-worthy events designed to showcase and present the multiply-faceted importance of the liberal arts and sciences, as pursued in American colleges and universities, to the country's economy, political and civic life, cultural quality, and its ultimate aims as a project of civilization. Phi Beta Kappa will claim its year of birth, 1776, as an expression of its standing as advocate of the nation's deepest values. (2) The meetings will serve to identify, recruit, educate, equip, and motivate members of Phi Beta Kappa, to be drawn largely from outside academe, to serve as emissaries of the value of the liberal arts and sciences to the intended audience of the Advocacy Initiative: those who hold in trust the higher education institutions of the country.

The duration of this aspect of the Advocacy Initiative will begin with event planning in late winter and spring, 2013, and carrying out of events through winter, 2014.

The Membership

Working with our chapters and associations, it will be necessary to identify and recruit, and then to educate and motivate, and finally to organize, set in motion, and monitor, up to 1,500 members of Phi Beta Kappa around the country, who will agree to serve as those emissaries, taking the message of the Advocacy Initiative, directly and personally to the intended audience. That audience is to include members of college and university Boards of Trustees, state boards of higher education and departments of higher education, the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, the public at large and those who influence public attitudes and opinions. Drawn largely from members situated outside academe, these members of Phi Beta Kappa will represent the country's largest organization of the beneficiaries of education in the liberal arts and sciences, and will speak from personal experience as well as from large-scale data.

The duration of this aspect will be from the beginning of the regional events in fall, 2013 through the Triennial Council, October 8-10, 2015, with the prospect of continuance.

The further articulation of the involvement of chapters, associations, and districts will develop after the Director of the Initiative is on board in spring, 2013.

The duration of this aspect of the Advocacy Initiative will be from January, 2013, through the 44th Triennial Council, in Denver, October 8-10, 2015. Throughout this period, the prospect of continuing an advocacy emphasis as an enduring dimension of the Society's programs will be examined.

What are the major challenges facing the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and what steps are being taken to meet those challenges?

Our encompassing internal challenge is to strengthen our chapters and associations to help them become even more effective advocates of the Society's values. While we have identified and promulgated tested and practical "best practices" for both constituencies, it remains the case that a comprehensive framework of motivation for such advance has been lacking. Our encompassing external challenge is to be more effective as a voice for education in the liberal arts and sciences. While we have the arguments, we have lacked the delivery apparatus to take this message to the right audiences. The Advocacy Initiative will be designed to offer participation in that apparatus as the source of the requisite motivation to address the first issue.

Do you have suggestions for ways that we can strengthen PSA-PBK?

Everything depends upon the commitment of effective leadership and the willingness of members to pitch in, along with a focused, intelligible structure of purposes emanating from national. PSA-PBK has not lacked for the former; we now will offer the latter. We can help identify prospective members. We can also now offer a substantive project to participate in.

You can help us identify PBK members in positions of responsibility in higher education and in state government. You can guide us to opinion shapers. You can ease our approach to media outlets. You can volunteer to carry the message yourselves when the time comes.

What is the national society doing to address the low acceptance rate of PBK membership? Are there ways that the national society can assist associations with membership recruitment?

Low acceptance is less widespread than some may suppose. Two thirds of our chapters induct over 90% of those they invite. Only a few fall below 50%. We understand that some other well- respected honor societies average 20%. The cultural climate may not be receptive to honor societies, but Phi Beta Kappa is still unique. We cannot however, stand pat. We have procedures that we know to be effective, and we continually urge lower percentage chapters to adopt them. Contact from association members may be useful where it can be engineered.

What is Phi Beta Kappa's relationship with STEM education?

We can never forget that the sciences and mathematics are within our purview. We support science and math education. STEM qua STEM will prosper without our worry. What we think needs our attention is science and math for everyone else. Scientific and mathematical literacy is essential to modern life and citizenship. We'll be emphasizing that.

The value of education, especially in the humanities, seems to be under increasing question. What concrete things can we do, both at the national and local levels, to advocate for continued support of the liberal arts and sciences and increasing awareness of their value among those who call for decreased funding and believe college should be no more than vocational school?

Here's what I said about that at the meetings of the American Association of Academic Deans a couple of weeks ago:

When we turn to the current popular discourse about higher education in America, what do we find? Do we find a rich and well-informed deliberation about how to equip future generations of Americans to make good decisions? Not so much. Instead, we find a discourse shaped by First Job Syndrome, by arm-waving and hand-wringing about technology, and by the persistent dominance of questions about cost and price. I am not suggesting that we turn away from concern about careers and professions. But that differs from exclusive emphasis on training for the first job. We will learn to cope and prosper in new technological contexts, including, likely, new ones beyond what we can now imagine. The trick, it seems to me, will be to adopt the new technologies in ways that do not exacerbate existing stratifications of access and quality.

We have all seen the data on the loss of socio-economic mobility in this country, compared with much of Europe, which parallels the college completion rates of richer and poorer Americans. And we have all seen the data about the loss of economic power in the middle class, a trend that will steer stratification toward a highly differentiated, two-tier system. The aspect of what may be coming that strikes me as worst, along with this distinction between what is available to 90% of us in an industrialized system and what is available to, say, 10% in a boutique environment, will be the loss of meaningful engagement with the arts and sciences for the vast majority of America's students.

The Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Texas, 1836, admittedly a very mixed bag, politically, does contain a line that expresses succinctly the connection between democratic citizenship and liberal learning: "It is an axiom in political science," we read, "that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government." That line expresses the threat to American democracy in current trends. Higher education cannot be solely and exclusively about the question, "How can we get more efficiently more of what we already know that we want?" Or even about how to distribute whatever that is more justly. it must also be about the question, "What should we — on considered reflection — try to do and get, and how should we proceed in that effort?" That question opens many more. How should we manage the competing claims among the different things we want? How do we learn to recognize and respond to situations in which seeking something we want does something we don't want? Or when we disagree about what — on considered reflection — we ought to want and how it should be distributed? Higher education needs to equip citizens with both the inclination and the capacity to reflect critically and imaginatively about ends and means, about choosing them and managing conflict among them.

Phi Beta Kappa has no interest in being transformed from an object of broad aspiration into a badge of inherited privilege. For that reason we have an interest in reversing the erosion of the arts and sciences, to ensure that they remain broadly available and accessible throughout higher education, so that the influence of their study pervades more fully the culture of the country. Our aim is to advance the capacity of Americans to choose well and wisely, in their careers, in their civic and political lives, in their personal relations, and in their lives as human beings seeking meaning and value.

Phi Beta Kappa has some history of public advocacy. The Society aligned itself with America's involvement in both world wars, and in early 1939 rallied, very literally, in defense of civilization against barbarism, identifying the rise of the totalitarian dictatorships in continental Europe as ominous threats to the values of the Society and America itself, and identifying liberality and rigor of thought as a primary weapon against them. By 1943, the country's transformation by war had advanced to the point that The American Scholar, our quarterly, published a piece in which Wendell Willkie warned that our enthusiasm for victory could threaten the very values for the sake of which we fought. Anyone could see that a Nazi victory would mean disaster. But Willkie also noted that the very efficiency of the Nazi war machine was built on two things: great acuity in specialized, technical knowledge, and the atrophy — or extirpation — of critical understanding. This Willkie laid, fairly or not, at the feet of the German university system. He quoted Ernest Martin Hopkins, president of Dartmouth: “It would be a tragic paradox if, as a result of the war, we were to allow our system of higher education, to be transformed into the type of education which has made it so easy for a crowd of governmental gangsters like Hitler’s outfit to commandeer a whole population.” (I owe awareness of Willkie’s argument to remarks by Pauline Yu, “Revitalizing Humanities: Expanding the Vision of Liberal Education,” delivered to the AAC&U annual meeting, January 23, 2004.)

Then in 1963, Phi Beta Kappa, along with the American Council of Learned Societies and the Council of Graduate Schools, sponsored a National Commission on the Humanities, whose work led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. That effort was conceived as attempting to ensure that in the post-Sputnik phase of the Cold War, America did not lose sight of dimensions of national greatness beyond the technological, the economic, and the military. The language of the eventual legislation is still inspiring. The 1965 congressional legislation that founded the NEH stated that: "The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit." It is even more evident today that the internal welfare of our citizens and the nation's security in a dangerous world depends upon the skills to be gained through the arts and sciences.

But again, we see our country, in its eagerness to do the right thing, in danger of forfeiting its capacity to determine what the right thing might be. That is the point of my opening citations about finding the right road. Efficiency in the pursuit of ill-chosen ends will only take us further from destinations we should really have chosen. For that reason Phi Beta Kappa is launching a National Advocacy Initiative on behalf of the liberal arts and sciences. This initiative is predicated on the idea that our founding year, 1776, is no accident. Our aspirations as a Society grew out of the same intellectual and political matrix as the country's, and a significant proportion of our Founders fought in the Revolution. John Marshall, for example. William Short was Jefferson's personal secretary. Our presence in American higher education over two and a third centuries is consistent with this origin. But it is time, now, for Phi Beta Kappa again to speak out more broadly. We have a half-million voices. One way of thinking about our membership is to say that we represent, quite likely, the largest organization of recognized beneficiaries of liberal arts education. We are preponderantly outside academe, and can speak not as the purveyors of this public good, but as those who enjoy its good effects.

In the years immediately ahead, we will identify, recruit, equip, and organize for advocacy, some significant number to carry our message to those who hold American higher education in stewardship. Phi Beta Kappa is in the planning stages of a major, national initiative to advocate renewed support for the liberal arts and sciences. Our intended audience comprises all decision-makers and opinion-shapers who hold America's higher education infrastructure in trust.

Our aim will be to assist legislators, trustees, members of state boards of higher education, and others, similarly placed, to reframe their thinking about the purposes of higher education. We wish to complement the current ruling ideas, narrowly focused on short-term job preparation, with a renewed awareness of the importance of higher education in (1) preparing people for whole careers, not just initial jobs, (2) building the dispositions of citizenship essential to the maintenance of a democratic society, (3) engaging students in issues and experiences that raise the level of American society as a whole toward fuller visions of human flourishing, and (4) equipping individuals and society to deal responsibly with matters of meaning and value.

In advocating these aims, Phi Beta Kappa will encourage the stewards of higher education to be mindful of the liberal arts and sciences as vital, central elements of its mission, not frills or dispensable luxuries. We accept the task of carrying that case to those whose decisions will shape that mission.

We envision a series of meetings across the country, in late 2013, building in large part on our existing network of 283 chapters, 60 alumni associations, and seven regional districts. We will draw on a significant fraction of our half-million members of Phi Beta Kappa as direct emissaries to our audience, and will equip them with a concise, consistent, and persuasive message to deliver on behalf of the liberal arts and sciences in the years 2014 and 2015. The initiative will run through the 44th Triennial Council of Phi Beta Kappa, to be held in Denver, Colorado, October 8-10, 2015.

The Society anticipates coordinating its efforts and message with a variety of partners in advocacy.

   




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