Phi Beta Kappa Welcome - Spring 2012

May 8, 2012

By Laurie Patton, Dean of Arts & Sciences

Welcome to Phi Beta Kappa. You are a member of the oldest fraternal society in the United States, founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary. Not inconsonant with the date of its founding, Phi Beta Kappa was a society of friends dedicated to freedom—particularly freedom of inquiry. In 1779, the earliest document of initiation says to the new arrival: “here then you may for a while disengage yourself from scholastic cares and communicate without reserve whatever reflections you have made upon various objects…” engaging with “freedom of enquiry”…

How ironic: a society that now stands for scholastic achievement, and conjures up a scholarly work ethic and care, should have originally enjoined its members to disengage from that world entirely. It is even said that they met in the Raleigh Tavern for drinks in order to discourse even more freely.

While we may smile at how far we have come from a drinking society to a group of high-achieving young scholars, I would remind us that while the first group removed themselves from scholarly cares, they still committed themselves to intellectual inquiry and reflections outside the classroom. In other words, they exchanged ideas outside of any instrumental need. They exchanged ideas in freedom, and one might also say in joy. The final note from that early initiation document says that the two pillars of the society are philosophy and friendship: a recipe for intellectual happiness if there ever was one.

And this leads me to my deepest wish for you: I know that you have arrived here because of a profound work ethic, because of a great amount of talent, and even because of some strategic thinking in how you chose your courses. But I also hope that you arrived here because of joy—the deep quiet happiness that comes from getting lost in an equation, in a sentence, in the cells in a petri dish, in the elegance of an algorithm, or in the progress of a novel. And I hope that you got lost in all of these things. Phi Beta Kappa members are recognized because they excel in all branches of the liberal arts, all aspects of the Arts and Sciences. They fall in love with their subjects frequently.

So think now, in this moment of intellectual repose, of the times at Duke when you fell in love with your subjects. When you couldn’t stop thinking about something, and you lost track of time. When you seemed odd to your friends because you were like one possessed. Flannery O’Connor tells us that “to love at all is to become odd,” and this is just as true of intellectual love as it is true of the love of another person. When we are in love with an idea, we act a little strange.

And while you are thinking about those moments, let me tell you the reasons why they are so important. They will not be the reasons you expect. First, intellectual love—what some call the life of the mind—is an antidote to anxiety and despair. Second, intellectual love creates and bestows dignity and self-respect when the world around you may not be willing to give it.

Let me tell you two stories that illustrate what I mean. The first one—about despair—is the story of a great writer who was stuck in a place of great discouragement and sadness. Mary Anne Evans was a woman in the nineteenth century trying to live an intellectual life in a man’s literary world of London, England. She was a book reviewer and a translator for the great John Chapman, the premier literary critic in London society, and she wrote in obscurity and lived in rented rooms. She felt she had come to the end of her rope. She had no joy in writing reviews, in translation, in piecemeal work editing the Westminster Review. One late spring, she went on a trip with her companion George Henry Lewes to collect botanical specimens in the Lake District in England. And during the course of that trip, she became caught up in what she calls the act of naming and describing. Taking up the plants, writing down their natural habitats, describing down to the minutest detail the shapes of the leaves, the petals, the stems, the soils in which they grew, she lost herself in the sheer joy of classifying plants. And near some brook in a mountain far removed from the literary rooms of London, she realized that what she wanted to do most was to describe the world in its minutest details—to name it as thoroughly as she possibly could. Mary Anne Evans decided to become a novelist, and George Eliot came into existence.

The world would not have some of the best literature ever written if a despairing young woman had not fallen in love with plants. She found an antidote to her sadness and a pathway back to the meaningful work she knew she was meant to do. Note here that George Eliot did not become a botanist. She found, through botany, another way to live in the world of letters that she loved. Her love of the arts was reinvigorated by science.

As many of you move out into the world, you are entering what some say is the most difficult year of your life—the first year after college. Educational studies have shown that this first year out of college is a time when you feel most disoriented, where you might question your own sense of purpose—and you might do so even if you have a job in a field that you love. And when this happens, remember George Eliot—who allowed herself to become entranced with recording plants in the swampy lakes of northern England and found a pathway back from self-doubt and the courage to begin her life’s real work.

The life of the mind also gives dignity when the world may not. I will leave you with this second story from my own research in India. In an ethnographic project, I had the opportunity to interview Indrani Sharma, one woman Sanskritist who was studying one of the most obscure topics ever—the contemporary Sanskrit novel. There are about twenty novels written in the twentieth century in the ancient language of Sanskrit. Even though almost all major urban centers have Sanskrit departments that are almost entirely made up of women, she was the only woman Sanskritist in a highly conservative university in a highly conservative Hindu city. Indrani was elderly and quiet and did not have an office. It was never clear to me whether she did not have an office because she was a retired woman professor or because she felt she could not ask for one. But at any rate, we arranged to meet at the bottom of the stairs of her department, and we conducted our interview on the verandah at a desk reserved for registering students. Indrani and I had such a wonderful discussion it ceased to matter that we were in the hallway: we talked about whether the Sanskrit novel gave contemporary writers more freedom to develop character than epic authors and singers did, whether Indian aesthetic theory could be used to criticize this oddly hybrid form.
Our reverie was interrupted by a young man, clearly a senior graduate student or a newly minted PhD, who walked up to the desk and began to move it. When Indrani asked why it was being moved, he waved his hand dismissively and muttered something about a seminar being held in the classroom nearby and it being needed for the seminar. The desk was moved away, and she sat in her chair, at the end of the hallway, without a desk, her hands folded in her lap. I wasn’t sure how to preserve what small dignity she had left, so I was simply quiet.
“We will finish our interview on the swing in the courtyard outside the Physics Department,” Indrani said. “I often finish reading my novels there. The characters tend to be richer when you are sitting on a swing.” And because I was so shocked at her treatment, I had nothing to say in response and nodded and followed her down the stairs to the swing across the way.
There is nothing particularly meaningful about this scene happening in India. It could have happened anywhere—in America or Europe or Russia. But this scene has stayed with me—mostly because of the quiet and uneventful way this woman professor was stripped of her last modicum of dignity: a desk on the verandah. But it has also stayed with me because of the way in which she simply turned to another refuge on campus: the swing. No matter how cultures of reading and scholarship might try to erase her, the campus still had Indrani Sharma, careless of her own obscurity and the obscurity of the genre in which she was an expert, sitting on a swing and doing research into Sanskrit novels. And in her short statement, “the characters tend to be richer when you are sitting on a swing,” she created another, far less comforting picture to be added to the iconography of reading novels—far less dreamy than the aristocratic woman of leisure—Western or Indian—reading on a European couch in the late afternoon. And there are many such images from all around the globe where the life of the mind becomes in its own right a source of refuge—where the novel, or a research project, or a statistical regression, creates a manageable, compelling, if temporary, world that allows someone to survive, even thrive.
Many have argued that the life of the mind has a particular relationship to democracy—indeed is born from it in the marketplace of Athens, or Paris, or Boston. From this memory of Indrani reading, I would also argue that the life of the mind gives us powers of survival when democracy fails us. And the life of the mind was powerful enough, compelling enough, to keep this scholar engaged, even dignified, in a world that did not care too much for her own dignity.
My colleague and friend Indrani found, and kept, her sense of self-respect through her love of Sanskrit novels. There was little, if no, reward for this love from this external world. She did not even have her own desk to prop up the books she was reading. But she had a swing outside the Physics Department where no one bothered her.
You will, as Duke graduates, probably never face exactly the kind of situation that Indrani faced. But there will be times when you are not respected for the work you have done, when you will be ignored or even dismissed. It will happen when you least expect it: the world will not reward you in the manner that you feel you deserve. And when this happens, you will have the life of the mind to turn to—the intrinsic love of learning for its own sake. Precisely because there is no external reward, you will be able to recover your dignity. Because, in the love of learning, there is intrinsic dignity, a kind of self-sufficiency where only human curiosity matters.
My guess is you will have very few of these moments. That with the brightness of your talent and energy, the scholarly achievements that have taken you this far will give you even more moments of joy and pride in your next accomplishments. As members of Phi Beta Kappa, you have traversed the arts, the social sciences, and the sciences—and done so with grace and vitality. But remember in the times of your greatest pride as well as in your moments of self-doubt what you share with the two women in my story. You have something in common with one of the most famous women in the world, George Eliot, and one of the most obscure—whom no one has ever heard of—Indrani Sharma. All of you now have the resources to be renewed, even transformed by your own love of learning. No salary, no status, no security, can ever stand in for the love of learning.
Welcome to the long lineage of women and men who first gathered in 1776 to exchange ideas in freedom. Take that inspiration that learning bestows and, like George Eliot did, share it with the world. Take that natural dignity that learning bestows and, like Indrani Sharma did, keep it at the center of who you are.
And if you do these two things, you will always be able to live the deepest values of Phi Beta Kappa: the life of wisdom cultivated in the warmth of friendship. Congratulations.