Speech by Matthew C. Steenberg
At the initiation held on April 19, 2001, Matthew C. Steenberg ’01, a fall initiate and Marshall Scholar, delivered the following address to new members in course:
Let me begin by saying ‘welcome’ to all the new initiates, along with their friends, family, and faculty; and ‘thank you’ to the Chapter officers for inviting me to speak at this initiation ceremony.
I have been asked to share a few thoughts on the meaning of membership in Phi Beta Kappa. I should preface what I am going to say with the disclaimer that I have not long been a member of this organization myself, having been initiated—along with nine other St. Olaf students—about four months ago. So my thoughts here will not so much be based on ‘practical experience’, but rather a philosophical look at just what this fraternity is all about.
And yet somehow I think that this is fitting, because Phi Beta Kappa really isn’t, at its core, a ‘practical’ organization. Certainly, it has its practical ends, and more than a few people in history have found the initials ‘PBK’ a helpful personal endorsement in larger society; and the organization’s scholarships are a great blessing to many of its members. But Phi Beta Kappa is not a trade union, it is not a political advancement society, it is not a lobby, and it is not some academic version of the state Job Placement Center. Quite to the other extreme, Phi Beta Kappa, as the leader and model of undergraduate honors societies across the country, seems to offer much that is just the opposite of ‘practical’: we have a secret handshake, special keys, we refuse to publish our motto or acronym in English, and the national anniversary of our organization is celebrated each year in Virginia, in a tavern room named after a Greek god (the Apollo Room). As we come to that point in our lives where we are about to leave the comforts of the St. Olaf campus and head out into the ‘real world,’ it seems rather appropriate to wonder just what it is we’ve gotten ourselves into in this society!
And to find the answer, I believe that we must stop thinking ‘practically’—as if some style of material gain is that by which an organization must be judged. What you have been invited into today, and what you are about to formally join with your signature, is a society formed around an idea: excellence. No one is invited to join Phi Beta Kappa because he or she has simply written a very good paper, or conducted a flawless experiment, or even solely because of high grades on exams. One is welcomed into the society because of a general attitude he or she has toward the whole of life, that is centered around the idea of excellence. And you who are being initiated today are here because the faculty members who have taught you over the past four years have seen this quality in you, and chosen to honor you for it.
It is no accident of fate that so many Phi Beta Kappa members go on to do great things. Six of the current Supreme Court justices are members, as are two recent presidents and the former Prime Minister of Pakistan who is also first female leader of an Islamic state, Benazir Bhutto. Even movie-maker Francis Ford Coppola and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim can claim Phi Beta Kappa membership among their many accolades. These people are from diverse backgrounds and have gone far in extremely diverse fields, yet they all share the very quality that this society supports: the constant desire to attain the highest level of success possible, and the demonstrated ability to do it. The status quo is never satisfactory; there is always more that can be done, and nothing can stop us from accomplishing it.
We are not here because we are incredibly smart or have elevated IQ’s—as anyone who knows me can certainly attest. We are members of this society not so much for the work we have done or the things we have said, but for the attitude of determination that has fostered them. You who are initiated this evening are called to recognize that this is a quality so precious that your professors have chosen to publicly laud you for it. And all of us, who from this point on can tack the initials ‘PBK’ onto our resumes and dangle special keys from our keychains, are called to exercise this attitude always, that no matter where we go or what we do in life, we can always sit down at the end of the day and say, ‘I have done my best.’
This is a huge challenge, but if membership in this society can help us to keep to it even a little, then perhaps it will have an incredibly practical value after all.
Again, welcome Phi Beta Kappa from all of us in this chapter, and congratulations to the new initiates.