David Wee

Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Banquet Address

St.Olaf College, 19 April 2005

David Wee ’60, Professor of English

CONGRATULATIONS to all of you on this distinctive achievement—it will be with you forever, and the letters Phi Beta Kappa after your name and on your resume will serve you well. All of us here are immensely proud of you. Membership signals to all that you are smart, industrious, scholarly, liberally learned. Especially smart.

But to be an exemplary citizen of the world, smart isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Tonight I challenge all members of the Society, but especially you initiates, to be not only smart, but to be wise, to be kind, to be good. We know that you can use your intellect; I hope that you will be as skillful with your heart.

I have three children, all born in the 1960s. Two are graduates of St. Olaf, the other of Luther College. They are all pretty smart, but none of them smart enough to earn Phi Beta Kappa. But I am as proud of them as a father can be, for they are kind young people; they are good people, especially about things that matter deeply; and in many ways they are wiser than I am.

I think that many of you in this room might consider what I say next to be hereti cal for this event, but here it is: I have spent my professional career wanting my students and my children to be wise, to be kind, to be good– and if possible, but also less important, that they also be smart.

Some day many of you will be parents. As you nurture those little miracles of life toward adulthood, you will be constantly hoping that they will embody certain admirable characteristics. What will you hope for? That they be generous toward the disadvantaged, or canny about what the advertisers call wealth enhancement? That they work for economic and political justice, or to hold on doggedly to privilege and power? That they be wise enough to recognize a scoundrel in power, or only smart enough to achieve power without looking deep inside to ask the right questions?

Look around this room at each other. Go ahead— look into each other’s faces. Some of the people in this room will teach your children. Others will provide medical aid to your dying parents or your partner or your child. Others will hold political office, and will make the decisions that will determine whether your dear Aunt Maud gets the social services she needs, whether your parents can afford life-sustaining medications, whether your lesbian daughter can live fully and freely with the woman who is the love of her life, whether your son will have to go off to war and shoot other human beings.

All over our society smart people are already doing these things. No matter on which side of the political spectrum you live, smart people on the other side are making decisions that you abhor. Is smartness enough for us? Is intelligence enough? Of course not. You bear the heavy responsibility of putting your considerable intelligence to work for life, for generosity, for justice, for grace, for love— these are the things that matter.

Don’t get me wrong; by saying these things I do not imply or believe that you smart people are not already kind, and good, and even wise. Many of you are my students and my friends, and I know that you are kind and good and sometimes wise. So also are many of your classmates who are not in this room tonight. I never expected to teach here for 40 years, but good people like you keep coming and coming, and you have made teaching here a privilege and a pleasure. But life after Olaf will throw at you countless temptations, opportunities, and surprises, and you will face difficult decisions. As you do, be sure to decide for justice, for fairness, for equity, for kindness, for generosity, for love, for life. You have strengthened your mind. Now be sure that you listen to your heart, wherein lies much wisdom yet to be learned.

As a St. Olaf undergraduate I fell in love with British Victorian literature, which I’ve taught for 40 years, expecting early on that I might someday tire of those texts, but I never have. These writers were the great intellectuals of their day—had they attended certain colleges in this country, they too would be members of Phi Beta Kappa. I cannot ignore their wisdom, which almost unfailingly acknowledged that real wisdom, about the things that matter, resides not in the head, but in the heart. Listen to three of their voices, all from the 1850s, and hear the ways in which they characterize reason, goodness, emotion, wisdom.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate

From In Memoriam (1850), in a section on the difficulty of finding religious certainty through study and reason: Whenever doubt and disbelief began to crush his faith, he wrote,

A warmth within the breast would melt

The freezing reason’s colder part,

And like a man in wrath the heart

Stood up and answered “I have felt.”

And in another section of that poem, he advises us all to

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

And a few lines later:

Ring in. . . the larger heart, the kindlier hand.

Matthew Arnold, a professional Inspector of Schools and Professor of Poetry at Oxford

In “Memorial Verses” on the death of Wordsworth in 1850, Arnold writes that Wordsworth had encountered the nineteenth century,

this iron time

Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears.

He found us when the age had bound

Our souls in its benumbing round;

He spoke, and loosed our heart in tears.

Charles Dickens

In Hard Times (1854), a novel exposing the dangers of certain educational philosophies, Mr. Gradgrind, who put his children through an education based on facts and reason, finally sees how his teaching has crushed his daughter, and responds:

“Some persons hold . . . that there is a wisdom of the Head, and

that there is a wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so;

but . . . I mistrust myself now. I have supposed the Head to be

all-sufficient. It may not be all-sufficient . . .”

And later in this novel, in a delightful irony, Dickens puts wisdom into the words of the one character with a speech impediment—Mr. Sleary, who runs a circus that Mr. Gradgrind has despised because it is impractical. Mr. Sleary tells the eminently rational Mr. Gradgrind:

“’It theemth to prethent two thingth to a perthon, don’t it, Thquire?’ . . .

‘one, that there ith a love in the world, not all thelf-interetht after all, but

thomething very different; t’other, that it hath a way of ith own of calcu-

lating or not calculating. . . Thquire, thake handth, firtht and latht!

Don’t be croth with uth poor vagabondth. People mutht be amuthed.

They can’t be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a

working, they an’t made for it. You mutht have uth, Thquire. Do

the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth;

not the wortht!’”

I’ll end with two modern poems (1986), both by Wislawa Szymborska, winner of the l996 Nobel Prize for Literature. The poems are translated from her native Polish.

The first is about something that has occupied all of you this year; it’s entitled “Writing a Resume.” As you revise your resumes to include membership in Phi Beta Kappa, think of her irony as she explains how to do it:

What needs to be done?

Fill out the application

and enclose the resume.

Regardless of the length of life,

a resume is best kept short.

Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.

Landscapes are replaced by addresses,

shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.

Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;

of all your children, only those who were born.

Who knows you matters more than whom you know.

Trips only if taken abroad.

Memberships in what but without why.

Honors, but not how they were earned.

Write as if you’d never talked to yourself

and always kept yourself at arm’s length.

Pass over in silence your dogs, cats, birds,

dusty keepsakes, friends, and dreams.

Price, not worth,

and title, not what’s inside.

His shoe size, not where he’s off to,

that one you pass off as yourself.

In addition, a photograph with one ear showing.

What matters is its shape, not what it hears.

What is there to hear, anyway?

The clatter of paper shredders.

The other, “The Century’s Decline,” ends with the question that I hope this talk has urged you to keep before you for the rest of your lives. The century of which Szymborska writes is the one that most of the older people in this room have been responsible for; you initiates must take major responsibility for this new young century in which you live.

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.

It will never prove it now,

now that its years are numbered,

its gait is shaky,

its breath is short.

Too many things have happened

that weren’t supposed to happen,

and what was supposed to come about

has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,

were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.

Truth was supposed to hit home

before a lie.

A couple of problems weren’t going

to come up anymore:

hunger, for example,

and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect

for helpless people’s helplessness,

trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world

is now faced

with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn’t funny.

Wisdom isn’t gay.


isn’t that young girl anymore,

et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe

in a man both good and strong,

but good and strong

are still two different men.

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

are naïve ones.

May you go through life always asking, “How shall we live?”