The word excellence jumped out at me from a couple of items in the Winter 2002 Phi Beta Kappa newsletter The Key Reporter. Maybe I'm getting old; until recent years I had never thought much about "honor societies" and their functions. They seemed like irrelevant clubs, exclusionary outfits set up to promote mutual back-patting among members. Why bother?
But perhaps there are legitimate reasons for such organizations to exist --- particularly if they can help kindle the fires of thought in otherwise dark cultures.
In the latest PBK bulletin, for example, President Joseph Gordon is quoted as saying (at a 225th anniversary meeting) that the Society's mission has historically been:
... to recognize and foster excellence in all fields, among all types of people. Our traditional long-term commitment to liberal education in higher education --- in itself a noble goal that must remain an essential part of our mission --- is no longer enough. We must reach out into our communities for programs and resources to support these values throughout our society.
In the same issue Secretary John Churchill writes in his column:
We are an organization whose motto became its name: The love of wisdom is the guide of life. Our purpose, to recognize and promote excellence in liberal learning, is our deep agreement. It is, indeed, the commitment that animates our society. This is not to say that we hold settled answers to the questions "What is liberal learning?" and "What is its good?" Rather, we recognize that Phi Beta Kappa must continually examine the purpose it serves. Pursuing our purposes while continuing to deliberate about them, we mirror the genius of participatory, democratic societies.
Fine sentiments, worthy of applause ... particularly in these times where violence and ignorance seem so dominant in many parts of the world (including even the most wealthy nations) ... and in an age where so many smart people seem satisfied with narrow training to get them into a trade, instead of taking part in a shared quest for discovery across the breadth of human knowledge.