Speech to Phi Beta Kappa Graduates, May 2011, Middlebury College


First and foremost, to the members of the 2011 Middlebury Phi Beta Kappa class: congratulations. We deserve congratulations for our hard work over the course of four years. We deserve congratulations for thriving in a place and situation strange even for those who were born in the town of Middlebury. Finally, we deserve congratulations for making it here this morning; although earning PBK is a great honor, I also understand the struggle of getting to the CFA at 8:00 in the morning during Senior Week. For the sake of those of us who are packing bags, meeting family, or nursing excruciating hangovers, I will keep my remarks short.

We know we are here because we have received an honor. But that logic is a little circular: this ceremony is praise for getting PBK, which is another form of praise. And, of course, we’re only eligible for this honor because we got good grades—which are themselves praise. So, by having our names read today and by walking on stage tomorrow with our pink and blue ropes, we are being praised for being praised for being praised, for… doing what? For performing better, on average, by the standards of Middlebury professors, in Middlebury’s particular academic setting, than 90% of the other students in the class of 2011. That is, technically, why we’re here.

But I want it to mean more than that, and I think there are some good reasons why it can. So I want to talk about Phi Beta Kappa, a phrase literally all Greek to me, in a long-term, metaphorical sense—first what it doesn’t mean, then what it does.

First and most obvious, does PBK mean we’re smarter than other people? No, not necessarily. Of course, plenty of people in this room are brilliant. Just to pick one immediately obvious example, Noah Mease, one of the ten other Junior Phi Betes nominated with me in the fall, is a prolific and gifted playwright, whose work I couldn’t imagine coming close to. He’s one of the smartest people I know. Then again, another one of the smartest people I know dropped out of Middlebury and would never have had the grades to make Phi Beta Kappa—or even cared about honorary titles at all—had she stayed. So it isn’t intelligence alone.

Second, are we here because our studies define us more than anything else? Are we model students? It’s hard to know what a model student would even look like, and I personally start feeling like a nervous impostor whenever I’m put into the that kind of box. So no luck there.

Are we here because we are the hardest workers, because we go the extra mile in whatever we pursue? Maybe, but not exactly. In fact, some of the most difficult work I have done at Middlebury has been directly in conflict with the grade-related goals that got me into PBK. Writing and producing a radio journalism show and taking five classes two semesters just because I was interested in the material were both clear stumbling blocks I put between myself and this ceremony. Working through obstacles and putting in extra time are both important parts of PBK, but they can also be important parts of totally unrelated pursuits.

Does Phi Beta Kappa mean we’re more likely to make a positive difference in the world? Maybe, but I can think of plenty of fellow students who inspire me and give me hope for the future who are not here and might have only been here if they had spent a little less time being so inspiring.

Fifth: job prospects. GPA and PBK certainly help out, but so do plenty of other acronyms. And let’s be frank: the immense effort it took for all of us to move this last little bit above the already high standards here at Middlebury would be a totally irrational investment if we were doing it for present or future cash—there is something more.

So why does PBK exist? What’s the point? It’s not a comprehensive measure of success, talent, or dedication, so why care about it at all? 

Talk like this misses the point. Phi Beta Kappa doesn’t have to say anything about the entirety of us as people; it only has to say as much about us as any other important event or experience or triumph says.

To get to what’s really behind this award, I wanted to bring in a personal story from before college. I promise it’s related. 

I was a Boy Scout for ten years. Close to my 18th birthday, right after I got my Eagle Scout, the scoutmaster, Steve Ellis, came up to me after a meeting and asked me why I had stuck with Scouting for so long. What got me all the way to Eagle?

I felt like I was supposed to respond by saying my innate, powerful love for the Boy Scouts of America had sustained me, or my close friendships with fellow troop members, or the autonomy and leadership particular to our troop. But I didn’t really feel that way. After about age 13, being a Boy Scout felt toxically uncool, I had almost no close friends in the troop, and being responsible for planning trips or service projects terrified me as often as it exhilarated me. I told Steve the truth: I stayed in Scouts because I felt the time spent would only be worth it if I went all the way. I told him it was the distaste for quitting, not the joy of staying, that got me to Eagle. 

Instead of being disappointed, Steve told me that’s exactly what he was hoping I’d say. Plenty of Scouts participate until they’re 18 and love it, but only about 2% make Eagle. All that really mattered, or should matter, was deciding to do the whole thing. Hearing him say that was liberating because it meant I didn’t have to love Scouts. Being an Eagle Scout and having reservations about the troop’s politics or fun-ness didn’t make my Eagle badge matter less. The important thing was that I picked a goal early on and decided my whole experience wouldn’t be what I wanted unless I achieved that goal.

And that is what Phi Beta Kappa means to me. This award is not the measure of what I did in college; it is one measure, valid and rewarding and empowering and fantastic in its own sphere, but not in every sphere. It’s a measure of willingness to compass out a small, unmoving point in the mind and keep it steady for four years, even when I myself change velocity. For me, it’s also a measure of an idealistic, almost blind commitment to academics—maybe a part of honoring the many teachers in my family.

Asking what PBK means is very close to asking what a liberal education means. For some, it means discovering subjects they never thought they’d care about. For others, it means honing in on the works of great writers and thinkers. Or, it might mean expanding the study of science outwards into philosophy or art, in ways that wouldn’t be possible in a huge lab. I have never been a fan of the slogan, “a liberal education teaches you how to think”; it smells a little like intellectual snobbery to me. Liberal education teaches you one way to think—a few different ways at Midd, depending on what you study—and the people in this room have internalized and made creative use of that way of thinking. Just like with my Eagle Scout, the way of thinking that led us through Middlebury and to Phi Beta Kappa doesn’t have to be the smartest, most honorable or most fair way; instead, the very learning of it, carried out step by step as we’ve done, is good. We have learned to learn how to think one way. I hope receiving this award indicates that we’ll be able to learn to think by as many methods as we want in the future.

Now that I’ve given you at least one set of meanings and nonmeanings for these five Greek syllables, I want to close with thanks where I opened with congratulations. Thank you to Jane Chaplin and Don Wyatt for being in charge of Phi Beta Kappa and for putting up with my late responses to many an email; thank you to the many professors who made learning a joy at Middlebury, and the few who made it a chore; thank you to the families and non-PBK students who can proudly say they came here for less selfish reasons than those of us being honored; And thank you, everyone, for listening.