The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest academic honor society, held its MIT induction ceremony on May 31, admitting 101 graduating seniors into the MIT chapter, Xi of Massachusetts.
Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, honors the nation’s most outstanding undergraduate students for excellence in the liberal arts, especially in the humanities, arts, natural and social sciences. Only 10 percent of higher education institutions have PBK chapters, and fewer than 10 percent of students at those institutions are selected for membership.
Diana Henderson, Arthur J. Conner Professor of Literature and president of Xi of Massachusetts, said: “We live in a time when many question the very notion of rigorous standards for intellectual discipline and achievement. At such a time, Phi Beta Kappa takes on heightened value. It holds aloft the banner of scholarship, and to the students who by their talent and dedication have proved themselves deserving, it gives the fitting recognition of a special distinction.”
Arthur Bahr, associate professor of literature at MIT and member of Xi of Massachusetts, began his talk by recalling MIT’s motto, “mens et manus,” Latin for “mind and hand,” and exhorting the audience to keep the “manus” part especially in mind. He then delighted the audience with images of knights fighting snails that appear in the margins of various medieval manuscripts. Bahr told the audience how he was finally allowed to view, indeed touch, one very special manuscript in person after more than a decade of close study of its text. This led to him notice features that he had missed when only reviewing a digital copy of this same manuscript. One thing he discovered was the use of manicules (little hand symbols) to mark interesting pieces in the text. He then connected this to MIT’s motto, as well as to Phi Beta Kappa’s use of the same manicule on the society’s key.
He concluded, “So when I pivot, as I’m about to, to the 'go out into the world, brilliant people' conclusion of this address, I don’t mean to overemphasize literal hands. But there is great power in periodically shifting how one sees, or engages with the world — in this case, reading by hand and not solely with the mind ... [And] think about how to do a version of reading by hand in their field, and in their lives ”
After the lecture, Henderson, who specializes in the works of Shakespeare, provided the inductees and their families with an overview of the PBK society. With assistance from chapter historian Anne McCants, the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History, and chapter guardian Emily Pollock, associate professor of music, McCants introduced the 2023 inductees to the rights and responsibilities of PBK members.
The 101 inductees were then recognized individually, shown the society’s special handshake, and received by a group of MIT faculty and visiting members of PBK. After signing the register of the Xi of Massachusetts chapter, the new members received their certificates of membership.