I wasn’t sure if I was going to post this up here, but Gardner suggested I should. In the spirit of, well, everything that’s been going on lately, I’m going to take his advice.
The following is the text of a (brief) address that I delivered this spring at the induction ceremony for UMW’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Through a series of complicated events, I was asked to step in as president this semester, and one of the presidential duties was delivering a “charge” to the inductees at the ceremony.
For all kinds of reasons, preparing and delivering this was particularly hard for me (as is publishing it here). But, in the end, I’m proud of what I said, and I’d like to share it.
I fear that some of the tone is lost in written form, but what the heck.
(Thanks for the push, Gardner)
As I prepared my remarks for today, I sought advice from a friend on what to speak about. She recommended that I talk about what PBK means to me.
That advice made me stop and think about coming away to my first year at Mary Washington College, 15 years ago.
I’m not sure how the topic came up, but at some point in one of the final moments before I flew the nest, my parents and I had a conversation in which they challenged me to graduate from this school Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. Then they did something completely out of character — they promised me that if I achieved this goal, they would buy me a Mazda Miata.
I must admit I thought long and hard about whether or not to tell you all this story today. Quite frankly, I know how it sounds: Parents bribing a young adult with promises of material gain in return for academic achievement.
But in order to understand the importance of this conversation I had with my parents — and the importance of the events that followed, I need to give you a bit of backstory.
Simply put, my parents are teachers and learners. Growing up, I knew this without really understanding it. They instilled in me a sense that learning and seeking understanding was, simply, necessary. It was necessary like breathing or eating or sleeping. My parents were always teaching, instructing, and challenging me, and they were always pushing me to take control of my life by expanding my mind. In our house, no topic of conversation was off-limits; no book was banned or censored. Basically, if I was interested enough to ask the question or pick the the book up off a shelf, it was my adventure to have.
In the end, I know now that through their encouragement — and their faith that I could handle the challenge of intellectual inquiry and exposure to any idea, my parents gave me one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child: a sense of the eternal mysteries of life and a challenge to spend my own life trying to understand those mysteries. That gift was far more important than any toy, any fancy clothing, and, certainly, any car.
My parents understood, in a way that I couldn’t at eighteen, that the challenge of making Phi Beta Kappa might take me further down the path on which they had already launched me. Along the way, I was sure to strive for good grades and a commendable transcript, but, now, I believe they knew that along the way I would also find landmarks far more meaningful than grades or awards.
The promise of the Miata was just the requisite “prize” that somehow seems to need to be tagged onto these parental challenges.
At the time my parents presented me with this challenge, I wasn’t prepared to accept it. First, I didn’t really understand what it was they were asking me to strive for. On some level, I knew that getting into PBK was an honor, and that it symbolized “hard work” and “academic excellence.” But at 18 years old, I didn’t know what college was for and I didn’t know what my place at MWC was going to be. It took a while to find out.
I know now that part of the reason I did find out the answers to those questions was that I had chosen a school that harbored a hidden treasure: a faculty who understood the meaning of education and who were willing to enter into a conversation with me about the life of the mind and the process of intellectual inquiry. As is often the case, my admittance into this conversation was gradual enough that it felt natural and almost effortless, but it was also marked by extraordinary moments of understanding — moments at which my mind seemed to expand so that I could suddenly see a landscape that was usually muted and dim. I treasured those moments, and it was the promise of them that carried me deeper and further into the conversation, and farther down the path.
In the end, I did graduate Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. But, in the end, my parents did not buy me a Miata. Quite frankly, it was a more extravagant promise than they could keep. But, by that time, I didn’t care. Along the way, I had stopped caring about cars and challenges, grades and transcripts. I had stopped wondering why I was here and what I was supposed to be doing with myself. I had jumped into the deep end of my education, and I just wanted to keep diving farther.
So, for me, Phi Beta Kappa represented coming into my own, as a learner and as a member of a community of like-minded learners. I believe, induction into this society should come towards the end of your college career because it is often only towards the end that we gain the courage to take the plunge and commit ourselves and our lives to the path of learning, inquiry, and intellectual communion. Out of that communion, I know that tremendous ideas can take shape and amazing challenges can be met. I urge you to fully engage in the society this chapter represents and to keep on diving.