The Face of Phi Beta Kappa, John Churchill

By Alex Silverman

Just who is the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa?

An Arkansas native, John Churchill attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), where he captained the varsity football team, was conference champion at throwing the discus, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Soon afterwards, Churchill became a Rhodes Scholar, receiving his second bachelor’s in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford before earning his Ph.D. at Yale. 

Serving as professor of philosophy, vice president for academic affairs, and dean of the college at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, Churchill was also twice interim president. A life-long supporter of the liberal arts, a prolific writer, scholar, and academic, Churchill was ratified as secretary of Phi Beta Kappa and officially began duties on December 1, 2001.    

Now beginning his fourteenth year as chief executive officer of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Churchill offers a glimpse into the office of the secretary. Churchill sits down to discuss, among other things, books, okra, “secret” handshakes, and the future of Phi Beta Kappa.



Can you describe a bit of your day-to-day activities? Do you have a typical day? If so, what is it like?

CHURCHILL:  I have travel days, getting across the country to a campus somewhere.  Planes, trains and rental cars.  There are only two states I haven’t visited.  The visits themselves are great:  meetings with faculty, students, deans and provosts, presidents, sometimes even trustees.  Sometimes I get to meet classes, and usually give a set piece presentation on liberal arts and sciences.  I have days in the office, working together with other Phi Beta Kappa staff on our programs, planning events, responding to queries from chapters, associations, and members.  I interact a lot with heads of other D.C.-based organizations concerned either with arts and sciences or with higher education more broadly.  I’ve been president twice ofthe National Humanities Alliance, and we work with the American Conference of Academic Deans, the Council of Independent Colleges, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to name a few.  


What has been the most memorable moment of your tenure as Secretary thus far? And your most humorous moment?

CHURCHILL:  I get to talk to wonderful people about things they love.  How great is that?  One afternoon in Tampa, I was talking to a historian I’d just met.  “What do you do?”  “Ancient history,” he said.  “Yeah, like what?”  “Oh,” he replied, “ancient military history.”  I was just off a big study of Alexander the Great, so I asked, “Can you explain to me how a torsion catapult works?”  You’d have thought I’d jolted him with electricity.  He jumped up, wide-eyed and eager.  “Wait,” he said, “I’ll get pictures of the one my students built last year!”  In a flash he was back with eight-by-ten glossy photographs of a contraption made of four-by-fours, carriage bolts, and surgical tubing.  His excited narration explained how the four-by-fours substituted for Macedonian oak and the surgical tubing for elastic ropes twisted together out of the sinews of ritually sacrificed animals.  “Wow,” I thought,  “How lucky this guy’s students are!”  The students, it turned out, had used the device to heave pumpkins from goalpost to goalpost.

For all its excitement, there isn’t much about the job that’s laugh-out-loud funny.  But I once had an extended exchange with a member who was complaining, bitterly, that The Key Reporter had published a map that showed two adjacent and hostile countries as a single entity.  “No,” I told him, “they are shown side-by-side in very different colors.  Please look again.”  “No,” he wrote back, “they’re shown as the same.”  This went through several iterations.  I looked at the map again.  “Please,” I wrote him, “have someone examine the map with you, someone who is not red-green colorblind.”  I didn’t hear back after that.


Phi Beta Kappa is distinctly and fondly an American organization. With that said, with the liberal arts education becoming more and more international, would Phi Beta Kappa ever consider extending its chapters abroad?

CHURCHILL:  I doubt it.  As far as I know there is no formal stricture limiting Phi Beta Kappa to American institutions.  But the founding date of 1776 is no accident.  The Society is the product of revolutionary urgency, and shares with the nation standing as a product of Enlightenment sensibilities.  The idea that the love of learning is the guide of life stands with “all men are created equal” as an expression of a certain vision of life and humanity.  We’re pretty American, in an affirmative, not an exclusionary way.  I have been told that the William and Mary of our founding was heavily influenced by the University of Aberdeen, one of the four ancient universities of Scotland.  I think that’s wonderful, but our founders were in a new country.


What would you say are todays greatest challenges faced by Phi Beta Kappa? Which issues are most dangerous to freedom of inquiry?

CHURCHILL:  Phi Beta Kappa’s greatest challenge is to meet the college students of the 21st century where they are, to meet them as who they are, and to present our organization as the embodiment of values they want to embrace.  These days colleges and universities are larger and more diverse than in the past.  Student populations are vastly more diverse–a great thing for the country.  Curricula have more options, more tracks, and students follow them on schedules and in modes of study that make the residential, four-year undergraduate degree less and less typical of the college experience.  Phi Beta Kappa will continue to advocate for its values in this new context.

One of those values is freedom of inquiry and expression.  The pursuit of truth cannot be qualified.  At the same time it has to be remembered that the pursuit of truth, and its expression, are activities of human communities, and it is only within human communities that the processes of seeking and speaking truth can occur.  So we can’t forget about the conditions of the possibility of community, including some degree of mutual respect and moral regard that accommodates differences.  There is tension here.  Truth and community are both essential, but often difficult to reconcile.  The big challenge of the foreseeable future is to repair, restore, or create the fabric of the world’s vast network of interlocking communities in the face of seemingly intractable differences as to what truths there are, available for embrace and advocacy. 


What definitive measures can be taken by any or all members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society to support and champion higher education? Along the same lines, is it then possible to measure the successof higher education in order to see a corresponding improvement?

CHURCHILL:  It is obvious that, generally speaking, higher education benefits individuals, both economically and in broader ways, and that the higher proportion of college graduates a state or region has, the more it benefits economically and in a wide variety of other quality of life measures.  Members of Phi Beta Kappa  and others can simply say this, over and over again: higher education makes life better.  We hope that members will avail themselves of the toolkit available at and adopt the modes of presentation there to express the importance of the arts and sciences in more detail. 


Do you have any advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates across the country? How can they make the most of their liberal arts degrees?  

CHURCHILL:  Liberal arts graduates can make the most of their degrees by making an intentional effort to catalog the skills, capacities, and habits of mind that they have developed.  “So you majored in philosophy,” says your parent’s friend.  “What can you do?”  “Well,” you say, “I can communicate clearly and precisely in speech and in writing.  I can read and listen critically and analytically.  I can understand the structure of the reasoning people present;  I can enter imaginatively into the perspectives of others and creatively invent new ways of viewing accepted facts.   I can follow a line of thought to its conclusion or trace it to its origin.  I can explain things when people have a hard time understanding them.  I have a body of skills that will serve me well in a wide variety of professional settings.”  The same holds of any liberal arts discipline.  I talked the other day to a woman who’d had a very successful career at Apple.  I was curious  whether her degree in French literature had been useful.  “Oh, my,” she said.  “My job was mostly about communicating.  I translated from English to English.”

The humanities and the sciences too often polarize one another. Advocates of the liberal arts find the sciences rigid or unimaginative, whereas promoters of the sciences see the humanities as impractical, or devoid of progress. What are your thoughts on this? How can Phi Beta Kappa, which champions excellence in the liberal arts and sciencesaffect change in this way of thinking?

CHURCHILL:  We’re for broad knowledge across a range of disciplines and for knowledge that speaks across disciplinary boundaries, seeking common relevance.  Specialization is essential–that’s where knowledge comes from.  But specialization alone is insufficient.  We have to be able to say how what we discover matters to anyone else.  Phi Beta Kappa’s ideal is that specialists should also be generalists, deep in something but broad and integrative in skills and interests.  We believe in seeking wholeness and connection.

How do we promote that?  By insisting on both excellence and breadth when we elect new members.  By making accessibility to the general reader a criterion in our Book Award selections.  By continually trumpeting, in our advocacy, that breadth matters and that narrow expertise is not enough for humane excellence.


Be honest, have you ever used the secret handshake? I for one would love to see its resurgence. Could you describe it to us?

CHURCHILL:  The handshake seems to date from the origins in 1776 and has been public, not secret, since the 1830’s.  The simplest way to describe it is that you open the fingers of your right hand between the middle and ring fingers, like the Vulcan salute in Star Trek, and then fit the fork so formed into the fork of the other person’s fingers.  When you clasp, the other person’s index and middle fingers are grasped by your ring finger and pinkie, and vice versa.  You can start by forming a pistol grip, curling the ring and pinkie fingers back, but that method usually ends in confusion and embarrassment.  There is of course another “secret” sign, which consists of drawing the backs of the index and middle fingers of the right hand from left to right across the lips (your own, that is).  This seems to signify secrecy–a relic of the very old days, indeed. 


The Fall 2001 issue of The Key Reporter mentions your award winning pickled okra. Coming from the South myself, I am well aware of the glory that is soul food. But could you describe your pickled okra to our readership? What is special about it?

CHURCHILL:  Okra, like so much characteristically Southern food, has African origins.  It is a variety of hibiscus–Hibiscus Esculentus–that grows a tall, slightly prickly stalk and lovely pale yellow flowers with wine-dark centers.  The edible pods are best when finger length or less.  They can be stewed, alone or with tomatoes, though some people find them distastefully mucilaginous in that form.  Cut into rounds and breaded with cornmeal, they fry up into crispy bits of wonderment.  Okra is the essential ingredient in gumbo; in fact, “gumbo” is a West African word for okra.  Okra pods, pickled with salt, garlic, red pepper, and other spices, make a delightful appetizer and an excellent alternative to the celery stalk as the relish in a Bloody Mary.  Okra flourishes where summer nights are hot.  I have had limited success growing okra on the balcony outside the Secretary’s office at Phi Beta Kappa in Washington, D.C.     


Can you give us a sneak peek into Phi Beta Kappa’s National Arts & Sciences Initiatives new toolkit due out in December?

CHURCHILL:  The toolkit was released December 5, and is available at


Your predecessor Dr. Douglas W. Foard characterized his 12 year tenure as primarily concerned with the transition from the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa to The Phi Beta Kappa Society. (The Key Reporter, Summer 2001) As we now move into your thirteenth year as chief executive officer, how would you characterize your leadership thus far? What are your goals for the future?

CHURCHILL:  My goal, building on Doug Foard’s work, has been to establish Phi Beta Kappa as a more prominent and effective advocate for the arts and sciences in American higher education and American life more broadly.  That has entailed an aggressive campaign of public speaking, intense networking with higher education circles in Washington D.C., and elsewhere, and raising the Society’s profile as an agency speaking out for the importance of arts and sciences studies.  The National Arts & Sciences Initiative we are now pursuing, at the urging of Phi Beta Kappa’s governing board—the Senate– is the outgrowth of that impetus.  For the future, we aim to make this Initiative a permanent program of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, so that advocacy for the arts and sciences is built into our activities in a firm way.



From the Secretary’s Bookshelf: Book recommendations from John Churchill


I just finished North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the novel in 1855 for serial publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words.  The reference in the title is to regions of England, not the U.S., and it’s a distinction that persists to this day, between an industrial North and an affluent South, with all the economic, political, and cultural differences that implies.  The book is about the conflicts of capital and labor, and the vast differentials of wealth and power inherent in nineteenth century capitalism.  It resembles Dickens’ own Hard Times, without the melodrama and grotesquerie. Overlain by a love story, the book shows the awakening of human feeling in a ruthless mill owner, who is himself saved from utter ruin by the happenstance wealth of his beloved.  Sorry about the plot-spoiler, but the book’s been out there 160 years.  Its topic is quite current.


I also recently read three novels by John Williams, a mid-20th century writer whose work has been re-issued by New York Review Press.  Stoner (that’s just the guy’s name) is a pristine story of academic disillusionment, the story of a professor who never quite “made it,” redeemed in the end–maybe.  Butcher’s Crossing is a classic Western (think 3:10 to Yuma) with fabulous descriptive passages and a twist at the end that is commentary on how our culture has dealt with this continent.  Augustus is, of all things,     an epistolary novel chronicling the life of Augustus Caesar.  It sounds impossible to pull off, but it works brilliantly, with entries consisting of (made up) letters and memos by figures like Cicero, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, and of course, the emperor himself. 


For non-fiction, I’d recommend the three volumes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoir of his trek across Europe, mostly on foot, 1933-34.  It’s a close up view of a world that was shortly destroyed, and an inside perspective on a privileged young Englishman, re-imagined by the privileged old Englishman who finally got around, a half-century after the fact, of editing the notes of his youthful Wanderjahr into three books.  Also brought out by New York Review Press, the books are A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road.  Fermor’s the guy who, a few years after all this, disguised himself as a Cretan shepherd and kidnapped a Nazi general, with whom he exchanged snippets of Latin poetry before dispatching him off to captivity.

Alex Silverman is a recent graduate of Wofford College in humanities and German. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. Wofford College is home to the Beta of South Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.