Having custody of the tangible property of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is endlessly interesting. It’s amazing what will survive the passage of time, the stresses of moving from New York City to Williamsburg to “Q” Street to Massachusetts Avenue to New Hampshire Avenue, the periodic removals of selected goodies to the Library of Congress, the basement damps, and the simple zealous urges that afflict us all from time to time to — for Heaven’s sake — get this stuff in order! A lot remains. And a lot surfaces.
Occasionally something turns up that I like to keep out, to return to, using it as a kind of touchstone, or a device to think with. One such is a little black pamphlet whose front cover cries “To the Defense!” The lettering looks like something you’d see in a New Yorker from the ‘30s, and sure enough the date is 1939. Inside we find the subtitle, or perhaps the title, if the lines on the cover were simply a cry to gain our attention:
“PHI BETA KAPPA FORTIFIES ITS SECTOR IN THE DEFENSE OF THE HUMANITIES AND INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM AT A PERIOD OF WORLD CRISIS.”
The pamphlet is a campaign brochure. Phi Beta Kappa was suffering mightily, financially, and the idea was to raise an endowment to place the Society on a firmer footing. We learn from the two published histories of Phi Beta Kappa, Oscar Voorhees’s 1945 history and Richard Current’s Phi Beta Kappa in American Life of 45 years later, that the campaign didn’t do particularly well. But from our vantage point, 70 years on, it’s the style of the effort that catches the eye. To the defense!
It was, after all, 1939. February. The Nazis had taken Austria but not yet France and Poland. The sense of a free democratic society under imminent threat runs through the brochure. Most interesting, conceptually, is the intertwining of threats: narrow practicality, materialism, loss of individual freedom, dictatorship. Here are some key lines, all direct quotations:
∙ At this time of confusion when men’s minds are tempted to give way to the forces and influences of materialism, immediacy, superficiality and vocational expertness, the Phi Beta Kappa Society must rise to the full stature of leadership which its prestige requires of it.
∙ If [liberal education] is abandoned in the hope of finding efficient shortcuts to success, the resulting narrowness of mind will sooner or later curse us with one-ideaed dictators pulling the strings for nations of marionettes.
∙ The chapters of Phi Beta Kappa . . . stand firmly for that basic principle of man’s liberty and intellectual and spiritual progress — faith in enlightened individual capacity.
I can’t help but think, as I reread these lines, that their authors really had something more active in mind than simply “fortifying a sector,” something more dynamic than passive defense. They understood, even if not quite at the very most explicit level, the links among excessive specialization, emphasis on narrowly conceived “practical” ends, stunted materialistic visions of human well-being, the atrophy of individual freedoms and the appeal of slick-talking manipulators of public opinion. To see these links requires vision we have to refocus in every age. It’s a hard vision to maintain, not only because the temptations to ignore it take on new forms, but also because it calls on us to look past the immediate to something greater. It’s that pointing hand on the key again. Look!