Phi Beta Kappa Student Address
April 17, 2008
To the new initiates, congratulations! As a fellow member of the society, I’d like to welcome you into Phi Beta Kappa. When I first told my brother about this event, he wanted to know if I got to haze the new members. I don’t know if a ‘welcome speech’ counts as hazing, but (unless President Anderson has something planned for after dessert) this will be about all the hazing you will receive.
To the Minnesota Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, thank you for inviting me to speak tonight.
Tonight you, the new initiates, join the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honor society. Phi Beta Kappa was founded on December 5, 1776 by five students at the College of William and Mary. Its intended purpose was to provide a forum for the discussion of all manner of topics—to promote what the founders called ‘free-thinking.’ Because free-thinking was generally frowned-upon, the society met in secret.
Phi Beta Kappa is, obviously, no longer a secret undertaking, but the society remains just as strongly rooted within the ideals upon which it was founded. The Greek motto represented by the letters ‘Phi,’ ‘Beta,’ and ‘Kappa’ is Philosophia biou kubernetes.
In English, it means simply, “Love of wisdom is the guide of life.” This evening we celebrate both ‘love of wisdom’ and ‘free thinking,’ an activity that, far from becoming irrelevant, remains alive and well within the liberal arts.
Over the past four years at St. Olaf, your successes as students have been vast and varied: You wrote 30 pages on Aristotle. You mastered organic chemistry by drawing reaction mechanisms on napkins. You memorized 19 songs in German, Swedish, and French. You read Ivanhoe within a 48-hour period. In all of the subjects that you have pursued, you have demonstrated both academic excellence and integrity. You have shown a passion for learning and the ability to think—both thoughtfully and freely, always open to new ideas.
Tonight you join a formidable community of scholars, Phi Beta Kappa members past and present, whose achievements span over two centuries. Your name, signed in the official book, acknowledges your place among giants of academia.
Your name joins that of Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the single-wire telegraph. Your name joins that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, acclaimed poet; Pearl S. Buck, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of the book that revolutionized 11 th grade English, The Scarlet Letter. Your name joins Gloria Steinem, women’s rights activist. Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist. Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President. And, one of my personal favorites, E. O. Wilson, the man who calculated that there are one million billion ants (as in the insect) in the world.
Pearl S. Buck, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gloria Steinem, E. O. Wilson—these are the names of men and women who not only passionately pursued knowledge, but who left—or will leave—their achievements behind for society. These are men and women who changed the world, if you will, with their thinking.
You are here because you, likewise, have demonstrated that true academic success is not merely repetition of the facts, but something greater. You recognize that love of wisdom is not an end in itself, but is a means to something more—life. That your learning enriches not only your life but the lives of those around you. You sit before me today because you have proven yourselves scholars in every sense of the word. For your academic excellence, integrity, and thoughtfulness, you have been invited to join Phi Beta Kappa.
On behalf of the Minnesota Delta Chapter, congratulations—and welcome to the society!