Michelle LaBerge ’06
To begin, a warm welcome to everyone here this evening, a thanks to the Delta of Minnesota for allowing me to address all of you with a few of my thoughts, and most importantly, a hearty congratulations to all of you new initiates. In the course of this evening, as you become the latest, and some of the greatest, members of the Delta of Minnesota, I’d like you to consider why you’re here and why Phi Beta Kappa exists.
It seems simple enough to identify why you’re here. You’ve all had a successful time here at St. Olaf, pursuing an education with both breadth across topics and indepth study in a particular major or majors. And so, you all probably got letters in you PO box that invited you, for a small sum and a visit to Professor Chris Brunelle’s office, to join Phi Beta Kappa. With all the future resumes and grad school applications, why not add some greek letters that sound smart to the mix that can follow you around for the rest of your life? Maybe you have parents, friends, or family that already have a gold key and they told you all about the society, its noble purpose, the secret handshake, and of course, how cool we are – and we are cool. But maybe you don’t know what Phi Beta Kappa is all about. I’ll ashamedly admit, without connections to or previous knowledge of the society, I didn’t even google Phi Beta Kappa before my induction ceremony. Ooops.
Well, to those of you that are unaware, and just to confirm it for the rest of you, let me quickly inform you that Phi Beta Kappa is not “just another academic honor society.” I’ve done some research since last fall and rectified my previous state of ignorance. It is the oldest honor society in the country with approximately 500,000 members. Some of those members include US Presidents like John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bush Sr., and Bill Clinton, the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, film director Francis Ford Coppola, News reporter, Tom Brokaw, Former Senator Paul Wellstone, Chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, numerous literary greats and, if you’ll remember back to high school history class, the creator the cotton gin, Eli Whitney. Check out the full list on Wikipedia.org. You are receiving an honor that places you among some of the greatest minds in history. And your election to the group is not just based on GPA like the Dean’s List. Instead, it is a reflection of your pursuit and achievement of a liberal arts education. You’ll get more of a history lesson later tonight, if this isn’t enough to satisfy your curiosity.
So, why is this pursuit of the liberal arts so important, so key, that it inspired a group of students at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, to found a then secret society dedicated to such an academic task? The liberal arts are defined in the American Heritage dictionary as “Academic disciplines, such as languages, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, and science that provide information of general cultural concern.” But, as you all know from experience, the liberal arts are so much more than that – that definition is too limited. If all the study of liberal arts education is good for is the acquisition of “information of general cultural concern,” the economist in me has to ask, why not just read People or USWeekly instead of struggling late at night over a paper and paying so much more to do so?
A liberal arts education is not just the collecting and memorization of factoids, as you all know – it makes you THINK! And in our time here, we’ve been asked to think critically, carefully, and creatively. As we’ve written essays, read various authors, and participated in discussions in and out of the classroom, we had to think as ourselves, as feminists, as early Christians, as Kantians, as biologists, as chemists, as statisticians, as literary critics, as literary authors, and so on and so forth. And if we were only concerned with information of general cultural concern, our scope of inquiry would be severely limited. The last time I checked, few of my acquaintances and probably few of you are really all that interested in knowing how to mathematically prove that every head of hair has a whirl. Even fewer people in the world outside St. Olaf care about how foliations can be used to take two tori, or solid doughnuts, and by hooking them together and pasting their surfaces together, create a 4-dimensional space. It’s actually really cool – although take that with caution – I am a math major! The study of the liberal arts widens your world view and exposes you to ideas you never would have come up with yourself – I never would have come up with 4 space out of two doughnuts on my own. But it’s these ideas and the ability to address a problem from various points of view that you can use to create your own contributions to the world. The study of the Liberal Arts is so much more than just gaining or generating “general information.”
The liberal in liberal arts is not the liberal used to describe the man that I have to chauffer back to the airport tonight. Al Franken, if you aren’t aware, is currently below us signing books and will be speaking in the Pause tonight. I have a couple tickets left if anyone would like to see him. But, as evidenced by the fact that we are sitting in the best speaking venue on campus for political speakers and not the 150 banqueters from the DFL Senate District 36 Wellstone Dinner, our definition of “liberal” is much more important – and our chapter obviously plans ahead. The definition of liberal most fitting for the “liberal arts” is labeled as archaic in the American Heritage dictionary. Something “liberal,” it states, is that which is “permissible or appropriate for a person of free birth.” The key link between this definition and a liberal arts education is this: the price of freedom is responsibility and when this definition of liberal was commonly in use, freedom was limited to a select few. They in turn studied the liberal arts so as to best serve the common good. Thus, at the center of a liberal arts education lie the goals of service and leadership in the public realm.
And that’s just it – that is why the liberal arts are so important that an honor society is dedicated to their advocacy. It is through the liberal arts that we discover not only that we are each unique individuals with special abilities and potential, but also that we can also benefit and grow through work and discussion together. We find we are part of a larger community, a larger world, and as such, we have the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to enhance the common good and serve our fellow man. We can’t just go on living blind to ideas and realities outside our own – we’ve learned too much, seen too much, experienced too much in our time here at St. Olaf to remain naive. And tonight, you are being recognized because you have pursued that which is befitting of a person of free birth. You’ve learned to think for yourself and to think as someone else might, you’ve liberated yourself through your academics, and you’ve done it with such vigor, dedication, curiosity, and success that you’ve been elected for entrance into Phi Beta Kappa. Congratulations all! And thank you.