From the Secretary: A Look Back at ΦΒΚ’s Values in a Year of Pandemic

Frederick M. Lawrence photo

What a difference a year makes. When I wrote my column last summer, we were just coming to terms with the scope of the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, a year later, we see how the values that Phi Beta Kappa represents bolster not only our members but also our nation and our world. Three lessons in particular emerge from the crisis, the first two of which concern the critical importance of the liberal arts and sciences for our time.

First, we learned about the crucial role of basic science in our lives. To be sure, much has been and should be made of the role of the applied sciences in combating, treating, and ultimately preventing Covid-19. Experts from medicine, nursing, and public health, including many ΦΒΚ members, have been heroic in their efforts throughout the pandemic. Scientific researchers far exceeded most expectations in the speed with which effective and safe vaccines were developed. 

It is all too easy to say that this seemingly miraculous effort is a triumph solely of applied research. But, as Drs. John P. Moore and Ian A. Wilson remind us, “the Covid-19 vaccines did not come from nowhere. Decades of research by tens of thousands of scientists worldwide put in place the essential knowledge and methods that underpinned the rapid development.” Basic science teaching and research is a core part of liberal arts and sciences education. As a society, we must emerge from the pandemic re-committed to basic science.

Second, we learned about the crucial role of the humanities for our nation going forward. The past year has deeply tested our resolve. Many of us have faced physical isolation from friends, family, and co-workers, and found ourselves relying on strangers for basic necessities of life. All of us have confronted a reckoning with racial injustice of an intensity not experienced for half a century. 

These challenges, personal and societal, require an understanding of ourselves and others, of our history and the nature of our society. Martha Nussbaum (ΦΒΚ, University of Chicago) in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, demonstrates the crucial role for the study of arts and humanities, as well as the humanistic aspects of social science, in our ability to understand others, in cultivating empathy. She echoed what James Baldwin declared in The Fire Next Time as he made the case for the essential role of historical knowledge and analysis. Baldwin warned that those who are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand . . . cannot be released from it.” As a society, we must emerge from the pandemic re-committed to the humanities.

Third, we learned about the power of connectedness, especially in a time of physical separation. Let me take one example, close to home. A year ago, as many of our chapters struggled with selecting and inducting new members as their own campuses were closing in-person instruction, my colleagues in the national office of Phi Beta Kappa (also transitioning to remote work) reached out to every one of our 290 chapters to encourage, plan, and facilitate. The results were inspiring. We witnessed a very successful 2020 induction year after all, and 2021 is on track to be one of our most successful years ever.

This past year, perhaps most of all, we learned all over again the symbolic importance of the third star on the Phi Beta Kappa key: friendship. Thank you all for your continued connection to our Society, and to each other.  

Frederick M. Lawrence
Secretary and CEO