Phi Beta Kappa


I got into a discussion about Georgia Tech academics the other day, when I mentioned how difficult the undergraduate curriculum was. The other person (who graduated from a state university that shall remain nameless) retorted with “Well, Tech doesn’t even have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa!”

That’s true. We don’t. And I started digging into why.

From the “Stipulations” on the PhiBK Web site:

Grades earned in applied or professional work shall not be counted in computing the grade-point average for purposes of eligibility. Applied and professional work shall be understood to include those courses intended primarily to develop skills or vocational techniques in such fields as business administration, education, engineering, home economics, journalism, library science, military science, physical education, communications, secretarial studies, speech, and applied art and music.

Well, excuse the hell out of me.

I actually don’t have an engineering degree, although I’ve worked in an engineering capacity more than once during my career. But I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech and a helluva engineer, even if my diploma says theoretical physics. (Summa cum laude, thank you very much.) And these pantywaist literature majors from Swarthmore and Vassar and Dickinson have the temerity to lump engineering courses in with P.E. and “secretarial studies”?


If those are their rules, we don’t need a PhiBK chapter. They are clinging to a worldview and a set of rules that are increasingly irrelevant, if not downright harmful.

The “Two Cultures” debate goes back a lot further than C.P. Snow, but I’m tired of this attitude that engineering (and the associated “hard sciences” and mathematics) are somehow superfluous for the truly educated. There’s not an engineer alive who would say “Sorry, I can’t read.” But if you propose a math problem any harder than splitting the check at lunch, I bet half the English department at Duke would throw up their hands and say “Sorry, I can’t do math.”

(Of course, I suspect most of them also can’t write a clear English sentence at gunpoint, but this isn’t a post about deconstructionism.)

The classic “liberal arts” major (which is what the self-perpetuating PhiBK aristocracy is claiming to be the ideal) has a lot to be said for it. Studying classical history, the Great Books, a bit of Latin and Greek, and the rest of the underpinnings of Western civilization made a good background for a young man (for it was always men, back then) to go into the City of London or to Wall Street and manage institutions that were based on the strengths and foibles of individuals. If you knew a bit about how Caesar managed his campaigns, or Lee managed his lieutenants, you had a better chance of managing your Midwest regional vice president and making sure he made his numbers for the quarter.

Now, however, businesses are based on more than that. Internet speed means you’ll be making decisions in far less time than Caesar or Lee enjoyed. Global connectivity means you will be managing staff in Bangalore that you may have never met. And, of course, your white-shoe Wall Street firm has a back room of “rocket scientists”—in reality, bright science and engineering majors—developing a dizzying array of financial derivatives such as credit default swaps that allow you to pyramid your profits to the sky.

Oops. Did someone mention “credit default swaps“?

I think there was some math involved there. Didn’t you say you couldn’t do math?

I minored in history at Georgia Tech, back when that was technically impossible. (I actually never got a “minor” designation; I just took a bunch of courses, and read one heck of a lot outside of class.) I think every educated person should understand the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and the connection between Columbus’s voyages and the Renaissance. And he (or she!) should have read and thought about and written about some Shakespeare, and Cervantes, and Tennyson. (And Kipling, dammit!) And we should all be competent in at least one foreign language. (I’m not, and I wish I were.)

But every educated person should also be able to solve a series of linear equations, or guesstimate the power consumption of a server rack, or give a layman’s explanation of private-key cryptography. Technical problems are important in today’s world, and top managers don’t have the luxury of just saying “let the geeks figure it out.” Because that road leads to credit default swaps, or multi-millions of dollars wasted on failed SAP implementations, or cancellation of nuclear power plants that would emit less radiation than the coal-fired plant you build instead.

So the PhiBK types don’t think our “applied and professional” courses are good enough for their precious honor society? Well, I’m not terribly impressed with what the PhiBK keyholders have done to our financial system, or our government, or our educational system. Maybe it’s time to give the engineers a chance.

Because a “liberal arts” education is no longer enough. If young men and women want a well-rounded education that prepares them for the real world we’re living in… they should major in Mechanical Engineering. That’s the liberal arts degree for the 21st century.


  1. Hear! Hear! Well said.

  2. Um, well you are quite versed in several languages but they aren’t human per se.