President Remarks 2007

Delta of Missouri Chapter Initiation
April 22, 2007
President’s Remarks:  “E Pluribus, Communitates … Communitas”

Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve joined in many conversations with Phi Beta Kappa members here at Truman.   Starting in 2001, I served five years as founding secretary of our chapter.  So I have had many occasions to think about what it means to be a Phi Beta Kappan.  Today I will offer some thoughts on our role in American society.  And I will conclude with a small post-script about possible relevance to the tragic event at Virginia Tech this week.

From history, we may recall the motto “E Pluribus, Unum”.  Out of many diverse people, one nation.  I will suggest that in today’s complicated world, we can unpack that motto to discern a role for Phi Beta Kappans.:  “E Pluribus, Communitates … Communitas.”

Pluribus:   Phi Beta Kappans are well equipped to appreciate Pluribus and to value it highly.  Our chapter chose to invite you to membership for your academic excellence, but also because you have applied yourself well to experiences beyond the classroom of your discipline.  You have sought out challenging courses and intellectual activities.   As you proceed in life, you may find that any one of those courses can unfold in your life like a seed that grows into a plant.  For example, as a university freshman in 1963 I took a chemistry course.  I was impressed by chemistry, but I wound up majoring in English, and for the next twenty years I didn’t give that chemistry any thought.

But then, about 1990, I walked through a bookstore and saw the book “Chaos – Making a New Science”.   That long-ago freshman chemistry course gave me confidence that this science book would be good reading.  I was amazed at the scope of thinking that I found in Chaos Theory – now it’s usually called Complexity Theory.  It provided a new and comprehensive way for a generalist to understand chemical reactions, physical events, and social phenomena like markets.   Within a couple of years, I found that this Complexity Theory even helped understanding of politics and my own field of law.  I found myself using concepts from Complexity Theory as I wrote a paper on some developments in environmental law.

So, we Phi Beta Kappans recognize that diverse topics – Pluribus – are interesting in themselves and that they can even enhance our understandings and contributions in our own disciplines.

But this thinking goes further:  “E Pluribus, Communitates”:   Out of many,  our nation has many vigorous communities.   Each of you has, more than once, ventured outside the community of your own academic discipline in various ways, to encounter another diverse community.  Not only do you take challenging diverse courses, but also you may have

  • studied abroad,  or
  • presented a paper in a campus-wide or off-campus venue;
  • And some of you have completed, or will complete, a General Honors certificate.

In all such experiences, it is likely that you were charmed, not just by readings in the subject matter, but also by the interactions you had with the scholars or practitioners of that other discipline.  For example, if sociology is your discipline, you may have felt stimulated by encounters with the people immersed in biology.

When I began teaching an interdisciplinary course on ecology and land use in the year 2000, I felt a need to personally connect with people outside my own discipline of business law, so I began attending a new sphere of meetings at various places, making new friends along the way.  Personal connections help to fill in the gaps of meaning we’d have if we depended only on books and journals.

            After you graduate and leave campus life, it may become less convenient to maintain contact with diverse communities.  There are strong tendencies to become encapsuled in one’s own narrow interests.  In our spread-out metropolitan areas, it is tempting to establish one’s home in the suburbs.  This brings many hours in the car commuting to work, shopping and other practical needs.  In a book called “Road to Ruin”, a city planner comments on this:

As motorists , we are happiest when there are no other cars on the road; . . . When I am . . . encased inside . . . my car , . . . I pass people too quickly to be able to recognize whether they are friends . And even in those rare instances where there is recognition, we have no time to greet each other and discuss pleasantries . . .  . If we are lucky , there is an instant of distant eye contact , or a nod . Hardly the sort of exchange that builds human interaction.[1]

And what about our use of computers?  An op-ed column this week commented that,  while our use of email helps us to exchange words with lots of people, many emails are interactions along “narrow channels [,and] we skip the bother of getting to know an entire human being”[2]  On the other hand, when we can converse on a phone, ,“intonation [can] help distinguish, say, wry irony from bitter resentment”[3].   But we lack those supplemental clues when we depend on email to communicate with people we don’t know well.   As your life becomes busier, please resist getting boxed up in cars and emails, and keep involving yourself in diverse communities.

Now I will return to my title:   E Pluribus, Communitates . . . Communitas.   Do some of you see the Jerry Seinfeld show?  George Constanza might express this as Communitates yada yada yada Communitas.  We need some sense of how to get through the yadas.  So, how can  a nation of many diverse communities move toward becoming a single community?   It begins with individuals.

Suppose you are employed as a research chemist, but you also participate in a community orchestra.  Through your activity, you become a bridge between a chemistry community and an orchestra community.  If they are overlapping communities, you strengthen the overlap.   Your actions can, to at least a slight extent, affect how our society allocates resources between chemical production and the preservation of our musical traditions.

We must not underestimate the importance of our individual interdisciplinary activities.  I’ll cite analogies:   a snowflake begins when two water molecules link up in a cloud.  And nowadays scientists can build new materials with new characteristics,  assembling them one individual atom at a time.[4]

Increasingly, non-profit organizations are eager to provide events for young adults to attend.  In late March the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned such events offered by the Art Museum, the Science Center, and the Missouri Botanical Garden, as well as by several others.[5]   These are opportunities to encounter new interests and to meet people active in those interests.   By cultivating such interdisciplinary connections, you can strengthen your ability to advocate for your favorite charities and organizations.  Such events and associations help various special interest communities to integrate themselves within the larger community.

There is a big stumbling block on the path from communitates into communitas.  A lack of civility and courtesy in our political life is troubling many people today.   Former Senator John Danforth recently published a book entitled  Faith And Politics.[6]  In it, Danforth calls for a larger role for compassion in our civic discourse.  He is concerned that too often, narrow political factions are unduely combative against their foes, and this is seriously hurting the possibilities for compromises that can hold our society together.

Phi Beta Kappans, your diverse academic experience has nurtured your imagination and your eloquence.  You are poised for intellectual leadership.  Please temper your leadership with compassion!

This brings me to a comment about Cho Seung-Hui, late of Virginia Tech.   We mourn the death of the fine students and faculty members.  We know that Seung-Hui made terribly wrong choices.  But we need to think about what may have brought Seung-Hui to a state of resentment and hate.  Some of us here may feel that the liberal arts and sciences saved us from lives of meaninglessness and superficial striving.  Why couldn’t they save Sueng-Hui?

We are hearing that he was bullied as a child.  He was mocked when he had trouble reading aloud.  We know that he continued to suffer from persistent depression.   For a better understanding of what may be able to save such people in the future, we can look to a new book.  I will read its full title and subtitle:  Train Your Mind:  Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.[7]   The author, Sharon Begley, is a well-known science writer for Newsweek and then the Wall Street Journal.  She extensively interviewed leading neuroscientists and experts in meditation techniques.   Early in the book, Begley reports on emerging techniques for using software to train young children so as to avoid dyslexia becoming permanent.[8]  Maybe if Seung-Hui could have used such software, he would not have been mocked for his reading.

            But Begley goes deeper, by helping us to understand the route out of depression.  Was the depressive behavior of Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech irresistibly driven by his genes?  No.  There is reason to think that good nurturing can make a difference.  Neuroscientist Michael Meany says “Genes can be silent, or they can be very active.  What determines the activity of the gene is the environment …”  Meany’s research with rats indicates that parental care “alters the activity of the gene in the brains of their offspring.  And that influences the way their children respond to stress.”[9]

Furthermore, in another chapter, Begley summarizes recent findings which indicate that even in adulthood, a depressed person, supported by drug therapy, can be helped to think her or his way toward better emotional health:

“By thinking differently about the thoughts that threaten to send them back into the abyss of despair, patients with depression have dialed up activity in one region of the brain and quieted it in another, reducing their risk of relapse.  Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.”[10]

Furthermore, neuroscientists are finding that, routinely, stem cells in the brain develop into additional neurons.  So to speak, these new cells can travel to the rescue of traumatized areas of the brain.[11]  These are just glimpses of some exciting new scientific information in this book that gives us basis for hope.

In becoming Phi Beta Kappans, you have joined as leaders in the liberal arts and sciences community.  Please believe that, if you will project compassion as a primary value in this community, it can help to reduce the storms of pain and hate that swirl through people like Seung-Hui.  And neuroscience can help them to move toward curing themselves.

We hope this gathering today has been an occasion for reflection.

  • What will be your role as a lifelong Phi Beta Kappan?
  • What energy and ideas will you draw from the Pluribus?
  • What communitates will you nurture?
  • And finally, Can we move through compassion, toward communitas?  

[1] Dom Nozzi. Road to Ruin: An Introduction to Sprawl and How to Cure It. (Praeger Publishers, 2003). Page 73.

[2] Robert Wright, “Op-Ed: E -Mail And Prozac”, New York Times, April 17, 2007.

[3] Id.

[4]

[5]  Diane Toroian Keaggy, Cultural institutions seek more young friends, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

03/27/2007.

[6]

[7] Ballantine Books, 2007.

[8] Pp. 102-106.

[9] Begley 172

[10] Begley 9.

[11]


Jim Turner
President, Delta of Missouri

Delta of Missouri Chapter