Speech by Jeremy W. Strief ’03
At the initiation held on April 23, 2003, Jeremy W. Strief ’03, a fall initiate and winner of the Tosdal Award, delivered the following address to new members in course:
A few days ago I told a former employer that I would be giving a speech for a Phi Beta Kappa initiation. “Speech!” she said with a surprised look on her face. “Can’t you just blindfold those initiates and send them out in a cornfield? What kind of fraternity is this?”
I explained to my old boss that Phi Beta Kappa holds no parties, provides no alcohol, does not require its initiates to wear blindfolds, and, in fact, is not a fraternity but a liberal arts honor society. “So it honors liberal artists!” said my boss, “What does that mean?”
At that moment I didn’t feel like offering a detailed description of a St. Olaf liberal arts education. I just mentioned to my boss something about a typical Ole taking coursework in epistemology and in rollerblading. But the question of what it means to be an honored liberal artist is worth answering more completely.
Perhaps the most basic definition of an honored liberal artist is someone who is the best product of an educational system that emphasizes breadth and well-roundedness over and against specialization in a particular field. So by this point in your St. Olaf career, you should be able to understand awful, pedantic jokes that come from a variety of academic disciplines. For example,
“why are mathematicians the best representatives of a liberal arts education?” Because we can integrate many things. Or “how many absurdists does it take to change a light bulb?” Fish!
But joke appreciation is not the defining characteristic of liberal artists. A more important quality of a liberal arts education, I feel, is the potential for innovation it gives you. Having been exposed to so many different disciplines implants in your head a wealth of ideas. This diversity of ideas is so special because when you enter grad school or business or cab driving, you will often be steered down a narrow cognitive path. In my future study of statistics, for instance, I’ll run into Bayesian theorists who are going to train me to think entirely the same way that they do. But the most startling advances in the world of ideas often don’t come from thinking inside the box. After all, if there weren’t any interdisciplinary thinking, there would be no liberation theology or biochemistry or, in the physical education world, there would be no post-Nietzchean, post-feminist rollerblading techniques.
Another defining aspect of you liberal artists is that, because of your broad coursework, you have the ability to put your future field of study or your future career in a wider, more meaningful context. As a mathematician, I find it fulfilling to study other areas in which mathematics is applied. Protein folding in biology, the authentication of Shakespearean plays, and gambling in Las Vegas—all these areas involve mathematics. So by taking such broad coursework, you’ll know something about the areas in which your particular field is applied, and I think you’ll have a greater appreciation, a greater sense of meaning about your particular field.
Here at St. Olaf we’re not simply liberal artists, but we’re liberal artists under the aegis of the Lutheran Church. In preparing for this speech I thought I should offer some quality of a liberal artist that applies specifically to us Oles. The idea that first popped into my head is that Lutheran Liberal artists make especially good politicians. Now, your run the of mill liberal artist is a natural politician and debator because his or her breadth of knowledge helps him or her to understand political issues from many viewpoints. I can think of many Carleton students who, in discussing environmental issues, can draw upon the perspectives of environmental science, economics, and theology. But the special edge that makes Oles such good politicians is that we’re students of Martin Luther and therefore are experts at personal attacks. “You say that taxes are too high, well I say your blindness and arrogance are as solid as an iron mountain.” (And if you’re interested in a more vulgar personal attack, trust me that Luther offers plenty of examples.)
So take pride in your liberal artistry. Keep painting your pictures with as many academic colors as you can. And remember that although we’re all going down different paths, we have deep bonds which connect us. We have deep bonds because, if we truly are talented liberal artists, I’m sure we can find a way to relate everything back to post-Nietzchean, post-feminist rollerblading techniques. Congratulations!