150 Years of ΦBK at Williams College

By Adam Reece

Like a fine wine, perhaps Phi Beta Kappa chapters get better with age. On March 18, 2015, the Gamma Chapter of Massachusetts at Williams College celebrated its 150th anniversary—what some might call their sesquicentennial. Founded in 1861 after an extended struggle with Harvard, the Williams chapter has long been passionate in its pursuit of knowledge. As they honored their past, the chapter also looked to the future. A number of speakers gave talks on current issues and programs in the liberal arts.

Secretary of Phi Beta Kappa John Churchill spoke on the society’s National Arts & Sciences Initiative. Rather than the narrow focus that so often falls on the economics of liberal arts education, the Phi Beta Kappa Society wants to stress the benefits that extend beyond a graduate’s first job: breadth of knowledge, a genuine love of learning, and ties to a community of like-minded individuals.

Kathy Pugh, vice president of education services at EdX, talked about the organization’s online-learning platform. Non-profit and open-source, EdX stands apart from other massive open online course (MOOC) providers. Their mission is to provide free-access to as wide a community as possible, to help improve higher education on the campuses of their partner schools, and to work in conjunction with their partner schools on research.

Jacques Ohayon, president of the Phi Beta Kappa Association of New York, outlined a history of the association before delving in to current programs. These ranged from presentations of research to meetings about animal law. The association, rather than attempting to draw the largest audience possible, is happy to appeal to a small group of interested individuals, offering specialized events that may not be available elsewhere.

The faculty chapter president at Williams, Steven Miller, discussed posting lectures online. Students, especially at smaller schools, often have scheduling issues—a class they would like to take conflicts with another, perhaps necessary, class. Due to academic demands and staff teaching loads, multiple sections of courses are not always viable, but, by recording classes and putting them on YouTube, students can engage in learning opportunities that they were previously unable to. It also opens up opportunities for former students to reconnect with their professors and continue their dedication to learning.

At various points throughout the day, ΦBK visiting scholar, William Arms, gave presentations and led discussion. These included a history of academia’s role in the development of computers and software, a discussion of experiments in online education, and a talk about the current transition that is occurring from physical to digital library materials and methods.

A complete timetable of the day and videos of all the talks are available online.

Photo at top: Griffin Hall, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Adam Reece is a junior at Hendrix College majoring in English Literary Studies. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.