President's Remarks, by Margaret Ferguson
I’m very happy to be here in this beautiful courtyard welcoming you newly inducted members of the oldest honor society in the U.S., Phi Beta Kappa; I’m also happy to welcome your parents, siblings, significant others, and friends who have come here to share the pleasures of celebrating your achievements.
Instead of offering you words of profound wisdom, which I don’t have, I want to say a few words about how remarkable you are; I’ll conclude with some reflections about the Society you have joined and what you might do with your new membership. How can I say anything serious about how remarkable you are—as individuals and as a group—without knowing anything about you except that you’ve earned consistently high grades at UC Davis and have also been curious enough to take more than the minimum General Education requirement for courses outside your main area of study (or areas, for those of you who are doing double majors)? I can speak with some confidence about one aspect of your remarkable achievements because I know from being a teacher that it’s not easy for any college student in the United States of America to do well consistently in courses with different professors, different disciplines, different understandings of what counts as knowledge, year in and year out; and I know as a parent as well as a teacher that it’s especially hard to do this in a society that has an ambivalent reaction to students who have not only academic talent but also the intellectual ambition and curiosity to put their learning at or near the top of their life agenda, day in and day out.
Our society places great value on many kinds of talent—in music, art, sports, acting, cooking, to name just a few talents that many of you are likely to have; but our society does not unequivocally place value on academic talent. By that I mean not only intelligence and memory skills but also a quality that I’m willing to bet all of you being inducted today have—and your parents and friends have seen in you and have perhaps sometimes teased you about. This quality is related to true grit but it’s something more than that; it’s what you will have probably learned to deprecate with humor, or simply to hide, and it appears, perhaps, more often in small decisions than in large ones. It appears when someone asks you to go somewhere you’d like to go and you find some excuse for not going because you know you need to study. It’s not grade-grubbing, though some envious people may say so, maybe more relentlessly in high school than in college. What you have is a quality of mind combined with some self-fashioned habits of perseverance in the face of difficult tasks and with an ability not just to tolerate but to relish knowing that you don’t know everything you want to know. It’s a complex set of talents and habits that many of you may have experienced, at some point in what is by now your fifteen or sixteen years of schooling, as embarrassing!
I started out calling it “academic talent,” and I know very well that “academic” can be a term of abuse in our culture, akin to “pedantic,” or “trivial,” as in “that’s just an academic question.” In the world of Phi Beta Kappa, however, “academic” signifies a quality of valued intellectual curiosity, and it also signals a long tradition of communicating about complex issues both within and outside the academy. Members of Phi Beta Kappa have pursued many and varied lines of work since the Society was founded in 1776; and membership gives you a networked community for sharing your academic interests beyond college whatever you decide to do and wherever you find yourself living. There are international chapters of the Society (the newest of these is in London) and there is a national website [https://www.pbk.org/home/index.aspx] that you can consult for information about lectures, exhibits and events sponsored by a chapter near you. The Society advocates on behalf of higher education, freedom of expression, diversity of perspectives, and the cultural value of the liberal arts and sciences. The Society publishes an informational bulletin, The Key Reporter, as well as a respected journal called The American Scholar. Last and perhaps not least, it has a secret handshake that you will have a chance to learn during the reception that follows this ceremony—and that will start very soon! But before closing these remarks, I want to say a few words about that secret handshake and what it symbolizes.
From one perspective, the secret handshake is a reminder that Phi Beta Kappa was originally created as a secret society, according to its official history, “so that its founders would have the freedom to discuss any topic they chose. Freedom of inquiry has been a hallmark of ΦBK ever since.”* And freedom of inquiry is indeed an important value to most of the people who become members of the Society. But official histories, even of societies devoted to telling the truth, are not above criticism, and that’s why I want to put a bit more pressure on that detail of the secret handshake. Along with an oath of secrecy, a code of laws, mottos in Latin and Greek, and an initiation ceremony much more elaborate than the one you’re experiencing today, that handshake is given a positive spin when it’s interpreted as a sign of the founders’ desire for freedom of inquiry. For the handshake can also be interpreted, less rosily, as a reminder that the original members’ freedom of intellectual inquiry—and of discussion—was predicated on their difference and distance from others. Among those others were women and African Americans. The official history admits that fact but only obliquely, by mentioning that the first African American was inducted into a Phi Beta chapter in 1874, and the first woman in 1875.
The belated admission of women and African Americans—and perhaps Native Americans too, though the website history doesn’t mention that group—shows that the Society has been capable of growth and change, albeit at a slow pace. Today, fortunately, membership in Phi Beta Kappa is open to any student who earns high grades and takes a broad course of study at a campus that has a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter—but such chapters exist at fewer than 10% of U.S. institutions of higher education. So Phi Beta Kappa is now open to a much more diverse population than it was in 1776, but it’s not open to everyone who might deserve the honor that you have earned. I suspect that you know—as I do—some very smart and hard working students at UC Davis and elsewhere who have been prevented by circumstances beyond their control from meeting the membership standards for Phi Beta Kappa if their institution has a chapter; and this knowledge may make you uncomfortable about joining an elite academic society. How many of you debated whether or not to accept the invitation to join? I know I did, as a feminist in the turbulent era of the late 1960s; I was also, however, very pleased by the honor, as was my mother, who had earned a Phi Beta Kappa key as the first woman in her North Carolina family to go to college, and who couldn’t have gone to college at all without substantial scholarship aid. My path to membership was easier than my mother’s and I was proud to join Phi Beta Kappa in 1969; but from then till now, my membership has prompted me to think about what the honor means in terms of social justice and the public good.
As a new Phi Beta Kappa member, you can take action to make your membership meaningful for you. The certificate you receive today is not just a sign of past accomplishment but also an invitation to future reflection and even action. You could, for instance, get involved in the Society’s ongoing process of demographic transformation by helping to establish a new Phi Beta Kappa chapter at a college or university that doesn’t have one and that might be located near to where you’ll live and work after graduation. You could also work on Phi Beta Kappa’s new project of advocating on behalf of a liberal arts education in a time when the very idea of such an education is being attacked from many quarters. One thing that I’ve tried to do during my career, and especially during my years of privileged teaching in a great public university in California—a territory that belonged to Spain, not to the U.S., when Phi Beta Kappa was founded—is to work as a volunteer to expand access to an excellent college education for multilingual high school students who may not have the financial wherewithal even to think about applying to college.**
So, to conclude: let me remind you that as a new Phi Beta Kappa member, you have a chance not only to learn that secret handshake right after this ceremony but also to speak up—in the years to come—for the value of your own education. It began at home—thank you parents!—and it will continue, I hope, for the rest of your lives.
*Quoted from A Brief History of Phi Beta Kappa.
**To learn about how you can get involved in starting a new chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and/or in joining the Society’s advocacy projects, go to the Phi Beta Kappa home page and look under “Get Involved.”