Phi Beta Kappa charge

As chapter president for the Carnegie Mellon chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, since Fall 2012 I have delivered the charge to new initiates. Here are my remarks from today, in which I “speak briefly on the ideals of the Society and the responsibilities of membership”.

Phi Beta Kappa is an American institution. This afternoon I would like to talk about what that means for you as a new member of our society – not because I necessarily embrace American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States has a particular destiny to fulfill that renders us superior to other nations, but rather because I do believe that America is exceptional, and that history can be instructive.

Imagine an era when the United States is suffering through uneasy times. Imagine, if you can, a time when the country is at war, with enormous costs borne by human lives and by circumstances that indebt us deeply to another overseas nation. Imagine a time when per capita income, after years of steady growth, is plummeting; when Americans are driven from their homes; when the very underpinnings of the American monetary system depend upon the financial system of another country. Not surprisingly, during this time, the citizenry is divided about what course of action to take, holding fundamentally different political assumptions about what should become of the United States, and about what the proper rights and responsibilities of individuals, states, and the nation should be with respect to each other, including profound divisions on issues such as fair taxation and involvement in foreign affairs.

These are the sorts of troubles that afflicted the loose affiliation of the states united in 1776, when our society Phi Beta Kappa was founded, and if we somehow should ever find ourselves again in a similar, dire time as a nation or as individuals, we can look back to that history and draw some lessons.

They were human beings, which is to say they were both like and unlike us, those young men at the College of William & Mary who started our society. Muddling through their lives, they sought to form a society that represented some of their highest ideals. It takes a certain serious playfulness to form such a club, which is now the oldest academic honor society. Those young men, whose bones are now everywhere dust, created something that still endures today, by virtue of their focus on a spirit of companionship, zest for life, and quest for knowledge.

These qualities are captured by the motto for the society, which I believe is a retronym constructed from the letters Phi Beta Kappa. That motto is Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης — generally translated as “The love of learning is the guide of life.” But when I see those words, I also see the academic disciplines Philosophy, Biology, and Cybernetics. Philosophy we recognize here at Carnegie Mellon as a department in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Biological Sciences in the Mellon College of Science, but Cybernetics as an interdisciplinary study is less well-known these days. The name of that discipline was coined by Norbert Wiener and, while it connects many fields, one might say that it belongs to the School of Computer Science. So the motto for our society, Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης, embraces three departments within those colleges at Carnegie Mellon from which we generally seek initiates into the society.

Now – as during its formation – the Phi Beta Kappa society is connected to but also distinct from your formal academic studies. So no matter which of the colleges is your home, this society now belongs equally to every one of you.

Having just presented a Carnegie Mellon (Upsilon of Pennsylvania)-centered account of how the Phi Beta Kappa motto relates to our own university, and having heard earlier from our historian about the society’s symbols, I will now present a more personal interpretation of the key that symbolizes our society. The three main design elements on the obverse face are the pointing hand, three Greek letters, and three clustered stars. The earthbound hand on the key is pointing towards something, but what? Most directly, it’s pointing towards the letter Beta. But if you follow the trajectory of the gesture, it is pointing towards the stars, as though to visually indicate, through means of the society Phi Beta Kappa, you can reach the stars.

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That constellation of stars indicates something simultaneously unreachable yet visible, something accessible to human thought and analysis, which suggests a quest for knowledge. Moreover, the fact that we see a constellation or asterism, a group of stars, suggests that the hand is pointing towards a union, a society. And I would go even further. I suggest that the hand is actually not pointing to the stars themselves, but is pointing between the stars, that is, beyond the stars. If you follow the gesture closely, you may also see: the hand is pointing towards some essence that is even beyond the visible, yet we might somehow be guided towards its direction by following the path of fellowship and by searching for knowledge.

We are poised at this moment between the past and the future. We are also at the border between the dust and the heavens. We approach our finest possibility by navigating through life // with the love of the search for knowledge as our guide. This guide, the love of the search for knowledge, conducted in fellowship, will help us to navigate that fine strait between humiliation and hubris – to become more fully human.

Phi Beta Kappa was originally intended as a haven for free discussion of timely issues and timeless ideas, during an era of revolution and social upheaval. Let us carry forth the example of the initial members of the society, and ourselves serve for future years and generations – to attend to, reflect upon, discuss, and take action on issues and ideas. Let us conduct ourselves so that we may improve ourselves as well as the greater societies of family, friendship, city, nation, and world. Let us display our love for wisdom as a guide for life.

In closing, remember: there may come a time when you as individuals, or the children who one day may smile with you, or your neighbors and their children … will live during a time of war, economic hardship, political friction, and personal hardship. If you should ever find your nation and yourself in that situation, extend your hands in a reach for higher knowledge, shake hands with others in fellowship, and use your hands to build for our broader society. I wish for all of you the best in these times and those to come.

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