Phi Beta Kappa Is Latest `Multiculturalism' Battlefield

By 1994, San Francisco Chronicle | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 16, 1994 | Go to article overview

Phi Beta Kappa Is Latest `Multiculturalism' Battlefield


1994, San Francisco Chronicle, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The staid and sleepy world of Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious academic honor society, has been rudely shaken by controversy this year over whether the group should embrace new scholarship emphasizing gender, race, class and "postcolonial inquiry."

By sticking to classical texts and approaches, one member warned, the society risks becoming "a dinosaur clinging to the edge of the slime pit."

In characteristic scholarly fashion, the competing arguments so far have been played out in an avalanche of outwardly civil but sharply worded letters to the society's quarterly newsletter, the Key Reporter.

This week, however, the fight comes into the open at Phi Beta Kappa's triennial meeting in San Francisco, where leading national scholars will join a debate that continues to rage in American higher education.

At issue is what should be studied - and how. Proponents of the new scholarship, including Phi Beta Kappa's outgoing president, call for more study of non-European texts and for more analysis of the role of women, minorities, and different social classes in history and literature. They say the society is too stodgy and has failed to keep pace with changing academic times.

Opponents, including many rank-and-file members, fear that an untoward focus on multiculturalism will lead the group to become politicized and stray from its mission of fostering intellectual excellence.

The practical stakes in this particular battle are relatively low. Unlike colleges that are grappling with similar questions, Phi Beta Kappa does not have a curriculum to revamp or new faculty members to hire.

But the symbolic stakes in Phi Beta Kappa's culture war are high indeed. The group's prestige makes it a standard-bearer in higher education - feminist scholar and Phi Beta Kappa senator Catharine Stimpson calls it "part of the cultural infrastructure of America."

"There is a feeling that Phi Beta Kappa mans the ramparts against a welling barbarism and general degradation of standards, that we must be the guardians of scholarship, knowledge and culture - and who would cavil with that?" said Rutgers University historian David Levering Lewis, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his biography of W.E.B. DuBois.

But, he added, "The extension of that seems to be that the new and the unfamiliar is responded to with less sympathy than I think is appropriate. …

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