Phi Beta Kappa Student Address
Katharine Klotzbach '07
April 19, 2007
Good evening, everyone. To begin, let me congratulate new initiates to Phi Beta Kappa and thank all of you for letting me share my thoughts with you tonight. I have to admit, I feel a little sheepish being up here, because when I received my initiation letter last fall I didn’t even know what Phi Beta Kappa was. I saw the Greek letters, the mysterious symbol and the word “society”, and my imagination went into overdrive. I immediately had visions of secret handshakes and secret meetings in the bowels of Rolvaag. I thought maybe we would even get secret matching tattoos. These prospects deeply excited me.
Well, I was right about the handshake, but little else. Phi Beta Kappa, if, like me, you didn’t already know, is the nation’s oldest honor society. I’m talking really old: it was founded in 1776. I did the math – on a calculator, since I am an English major – and was 231 years ago that five scholars at the College of William and Mary decided to form a society in which they could freely discuss any topic of their choosing. (And, as mentioned earlier, it was a secret society with secret meetings – which is pretty cool.) Eventually, though, Phi Beta Kappa evolved into what it is today: a not-so-secret society that still promotes free thinking as it is achieved through a rigorous liberal arts education. It also serves to honor individuals who exemplify that ideal – individuals such as yourselves.
At this point, you still might be wondering what you’re doing here. “Free thinking? Liberal arts? I mean, I get good grades, but what does any of that have to do with me?” Well, I’ll walk you through it, starting with the concept of a liberal arts education. That should be a concept we are all familiar with. “Liberal arts” is a St. Olaf buzzword, and we’ve heard it many times tonight already. Even first years toss it around casually at their corridor meetings – at least I did. But I’m guessing that we do not really stop and think about what “liberal arts” really means. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Uh-huh, liberal arts means I have to take Beginning Pottery, Lutheranism 101, Fitness Walking, and thirteen other GEs before I actually get to my major” (or, in the case of many of you here – majors). And, sure, that may be partly true. We might say all those classes put the “arts” in “liberal arts.”
But I would like to focus on the “liberal” in “liberal arts”, because I think it provides us with a better definition of what we’re doing here. Obviously, when I say “liberal,” I’m not talking political persuasions. Nor am I using it in the sense of “I like to spread a ‘liberal’ amount of peanut butter on my sandwich” – even though I do. Instead, I mean “liberal” in the sense of “broadly based.” And, to me, a “broadly based” education is not just comprised of a myriad of arts – from philosophy to trigonometry to rock climbing – it also includes a myriad of thinking skills.
Clearly, we’ve all mastered the basic academic thinking skills. The capacity to remember all those muscle groups for your Anatomy exam, or the ability to comprehend four-dimensional space, or even the perspicacity associated with selecting just the right “GRE word” for your English literature essay. We are all proficient in the thinking skills that have helped us succeed in the classrooms of St. Olaf – and these skills are important, because they’re part of the reason you’re here tonight.
So, what’s the other part – the other thinking skills? Well, I can tell you they have nothing at all to do with GPAs or exam grades. (That’s what the Dean’s List is for.) In the spirit of the original founders of Phi Beta Kappa, what remains is less a set of thinking skills than, put simply, a more holistic thoughtfulness. A thoughtfulness that extends far beyond the classroom. A thoughtfulness that allows to you to critically examine global issues, make ethical decisions, defend your political stance, or even meditate on the nature of faith and religion. Thoughtfulness is careful, deliberate thinking – free thinking. It is not strictly academic in nature. It falls under the category of wisdom. You are here tonight both because you have demonstrated excellence in academic thought, and also because you have proved to your professors that you are a thoughtful individual, in a wide array of settings – in a liberal arts setting, we might say. You are someone who loves knowledge in all of its forms.
So, now that you know why you’re here, take a moment to be proud of yourselves. Do it – right now. Okay, now that that’s taken care of, I would invite you to take another moment – or a lot more time than that – to be grateful. Grateful that you attended a college that values liberal arts and encourages your thinking inside and outside the classroom; grateful that you had professors who both nourished and noticed your success in a liberal arts setting; and grateful that Phi Beta Kappa is here to celebrate and support those settings, while also giving proper honor to those who flourish within them. Welcome to Phi Beta Kappa, new initiates, and once again, congratulations, all!