Megan Gregory

Megan M. Gregory

St. Olaf College Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Speech

April 22, 2004

First and foremost, I would like to say “congratulations” to my fellow

initiates on your election to Phi Beta Kappa, and “thank you” to the

Delta of Minnesota chapter officers for this opportunity to share some

of my thoughts about the importance of the liberal arts in our lives.

Now, since today is April 22nd, and since I am an Environmental

Studies major, I can’t pass up the opportunity to wish everyone a

Happy Earth Day. But what does Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970 by

20 million Americans with a very practical mission of putting

environmental issues on the political agenda — have to do with Phi

Beta Kappa and its recognition of academic, intellectual excellence?

I believe that the connection lies in the breadth of abilities that

were required to put knowledge to work in service to the world.

The first Earth Day had as its foundation academic excellence in

disciplines such as the natural sciences and environmental literature,

combined with moral and political engagement. As a society dedicated

to “fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts and

sciences,” Phi Beta Kappa exists precisely to promote the development

of such well-rounded students who are able to see their work in a

particular discipline within the context of how it might serve the

human and ecological community. In its mission statement, St. Olaf

College affirms a similar tradition by expressing its desire to

provide “an education committed to the liberal arts.” So tonight, at

this Earth Day initiation ceremony of the St. Olaf chapter of Phi Beta

Kappa, it seems especially appropriate to reflect on the place of the

liberal arts in the education we have received from St. Olaf and in

the lives of service we will lead once we leave the Hill.

As St. Olaf students, we have all heard numerous encomiums singing the

praises of the liberal arts. Not an invocation, Honors Day, or

academic ceremony passes without some mention of this cornerstone of

St. Olaf’s educational philosophy. The liberal arts are central to

this college’s identity, and yet we feel compelled to constantly

defend the relevance of such an education in the so-called “real

world.” What I would like to propose tonight is that as we reflect on

our education, we need not eschew practicality in order to affirm the

liberal arts. For me, the value of the liberal arts education that I

have received is not that it has allowed me to pursue lofty

intellectual pursuits without some straightjacket of practicality, but

rather that it has enabled me to redefine what is practical and

worthwhile to pursue in preparation to tend the creation with which we

have been entrusted.

Our interdisciplinary education has instilled a desire to seek truth,

and the ability to think critically and morally about the world around

us. Such development of our intellectual capacities, far from

separating us from a needy world, instead enables us to be active

citizens with a passion to uphold principles of dignity and justice

for our fellow human beings and for the Earth that sustains us. In

Representations of the Intellectual, scholar and peace activist Edward

Said asserts, “Real intellectuals are never more themselves than when

they denounce corruption, defend the weak, deny imperfect or

oppressive authority–The intellectual belongs on the same side as the

weak and unrepresented.” He continues, “The intellectual is an

individual endowed with a faculty for articulating a message, to as

well as for a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be

played without a sense of being someone whose reason for being is to

represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or

swept under the rug.”

The first Earth Day came about because intellectuals such as Rachel

Carson were able to transcend the narrow boundaries of their

particular disciplines in order to advocate on behalf of public health

and the integrity of creation. It was Rachel Carson’s breadth of

talents, a quality valued by the liberal arts, that enabled her to

serve. While trained as an ecologist, she was able to translate

scientific knowledge into lyrical prose for the public and persuasive

speech for policymakers. It was these abilities outside her field of

expertise that ultimately enabled her to contribute to a changed

consciousness regarding humankinds relationship to the natural

world, and improved policies to preserve ecological integrity.

As people who have been blessed with the gift of a college education,

it is our privilege and responsibility, like Rachel Carson, to use our

gifts in the creation of a more sustainable, just, and peaceful world.

Envisioning the goal of education as preparation for service, it is

intensely practical for the scientist to study ethics and philosophy,

for such pursuits can inspire research that will enable us to live

sustainably on the Earth and alleviate the suffering of people now

burdened by disease or malnutrition. It is vitally important that the

anthropologist be trained not only in ethnographic methods, but also

in public speaking, so that he may defend the human rights of

marginalized peoples before powers with the authority to guarantee

these rights. Literature becomes an essential element of the

curriculum for all citizens, for the gifted writer can give us a

glimpse into the lives of communities with different experiences from

our own, nurturing what Dr. Mary Titus called “compassionate

imagination” in her invocation address two years ago. This ability

to empathize with others is crucial if we are to live the “lives of

worth and service” that St. Olaf College is committed to fostering.

Each of you is here tonight because you have demonstrated excellence

in a range of intellectual pursuits. Best wishes as you go forth to

put your liberal arts education to practical use in the world we are

called to care for. Congratulations!