Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 22, 2001
President’s Remarks: Honoring Commitment to Liberal Learning
I would like to offer a few observations about the nature and purpose of Phi Beta Kappa, since there has been some discussion of this issue on our campus.
First of all, rest assured, Phi Beta Kappa is not the least important thing in the whole world. I’m confident, for example, that Phi Beta Kappa contributes more to human dignity than the World Wrestling Federation, the XFL, and a number of other institutions.
On the other hand, Phi Beta Kappa is not the most important thing in the whole world. We have, in fact, a limited and rather peculiar purpose. We seek to encourage, and even celebrate, forms of inquiry and expression that are not obviously useful. It is not our purpose to discourage or denigrate what is useful. If we need to take a plane trip or recover from an illness, we are as happy as anyone that bright people have devoted themselves to aeronautics and medicine. We observe, however, that the more obvious the utility of some practice, the more likely that practice is to flourish without any help from us. Our narrow and distinctive aim is to promote forms of human creativity whose utility is not evident.
Why, then, have we invited you to join us? There is the obvious reason: organizations seek to perpetuate themselves, replacing older generations of members with newer ones. But why you? Well, not because (or not simply because) you are bright and energetic. Your brains and energy will win you plenty of accolades. You don’t really need us to congratulate you for being smart. Nor do you need encouragement. It would, in fact, be pointless for us to encourage you to be bright and energetic. Nothing we do is likely to make you smarter or more vivacious. So brains and energy aren’t the whole story. Indeed, plenty of bright, energetic people consider our Society’s distinctive purpose to be strange or foolish or even outrageous. So, again, why you? Because you have devoted your brains and energy to liberal learning to such an extent and with such success that, first of all, we think you will be sympathetic toward our Society’s mission and, secondly, by honoring you we can honor liberal learning itself, thus furthering our mission.
Let’s be quite clear: because of Phi Beta Kappa’s narrow and distinctive purpose, it is the policy of this chapter, in its decisions about membership, to exclude students whose commitment to vocational training encroaches significantly on their pursuit of liberal learning. We do not condemn such students; but neither do we honor them – no matter how smart they might be. Or, rather, we do not honor them in our capacity as members of this chapter. For many chapter members help in other capacities to honor the achievements of a great variety of students, regardless of their vocational orientation.
Now some members of the Truman community deplore our exclusionary policy. That’s fine. We recognize that our principles are eccentric. We do not insist that everyone embrace them. Other critics question our implementation of our policy. That’s fine too. At what point does vocational training encroach significantly on liberal learning? Significant encroachment is a vague notion. It’s not at all surprising for reasonable people to disagree about where exactly to draw the line. We do insist, though, that commitment to liberal learning is an essential condition for membership in our Society. Such commitment does not usually manifest itself through devotion to vocational preparation.
It is commonplace for people to assume that honors are a great and wonderful thing and to call upon us to distribute ours more widely. For novelty’s sake, let us briefly address a critic who believes that the whole honors business is rotten. Some knowledgeable people consider Richard Feynman the greatest American-born physicist of the 20th century. Feynman also achieved some notoriety for his strange adventures and unconventional views. He is, I’ll admit, one of my intellectual heroes. Here’s what he had to say about honors.
‘When I was in high school, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista – which is a groups of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. And when I got into the Arista, I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK? So we sat around trying to decide who it was who would get to be allowed in to this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason I don’t understand myself. Honors, from that day to this, have always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science and I had ultimately to resign because there was another organization most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. …The whole thing was rotten because its purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.’
That’s Feynman. Well, Phi Beta Kappa has a ready response: the Society does much more than deliberate about membership. Indeed, our regional associations spend no time at all on the matter. So Feynman’s critique seems not to apply. But wait. We really can’t weasel our way out of this so easily. That’s because chapters, such as Delta of Missouri, are mainly in the business of letting some people in and keeping other people out. So why isn’t our business basically rotten? We should be careful not to dismiss Feynman too quickly. He had a keen nose for rats. You might recall that he was the one member of the Challenger Commission who was able to figure out why the space shuttle exploded. I think he’s on to something here too. If we were offering you membership so that we could have a big party where we all celebrate ourselves, then we would not be doing anything particularly admirable. But that’s not quite what we do. What we do is not the most important thing in the world; but it seems important to us. We honor your commitment to liberal learning and, through you, we honor liberal learning itself. So we are using you in a strange sort of celebration: a celebration of practices that might otherwise suffer neglect because it is often so hard to see why they are useful. Indeed, we celebrate practices that may not be useful at all in any conventional sense. Some people celebrate Rookwood pottery or the music of Roy Orbison. We celebrate liberal learning. Some people celebrate balsamic vinegar or the movies of Ed Wood. We celebrate certain forms of inquiry and expression without regard to their utility. This should offend no one. It may even strike you as worthwhile. So we thank you for helping us with our celebration and we invite you to join us as we pursue our peculiar mission.
President, Delta of Missouri