The following is the speech I gave on December 5, 2009 as Respondent for the Fall 2009 class of the Alpha of Virginia chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. The Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded on December 5, 1776 at William and Mary as a secret society where members could speak freely as they debated about controversial topics of the day. Two hundred thirty three years later, PBK is no longer secret but still values friendship, morality, and literature, the three original principles of the society.
It occurs to me that, as Respondent, I should first attend to the business of responding. So, on my own behalf and that of my fellow initiates, I express immense gratitude for election and initiation into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. While it is not always true that the first in a series is the best, I feel certain that our Alpha of Virginia chapter is preeminent among the more than two hundred eighty chapters in the United States.
I offer my sincerest appreciation to the faculty present this evening. In seven semesters, they have simultaneously challenged and nurtured me to pursue a life of thinking and feeling. Love is often absent in the rhetoric of higher education, but it seems obvious to me that the William and Mary academic world is unparalleled among American universities in the mutual care and respect exhibited between professors and students. My father has said before that “thank you” is an unusually difficult phrase to utter, but in this case, it takes no effort at all. Many, many thanks.
Now, my brother Nathan and my mom took bets over Thanksgiving on how many quotes I would use in this speech. Nathan thinks it will be three in five minutes, and since I am counting on an incredible Christmas gift from him, I will aim to satisfy his prediction. It turns out, just as they suspected, that the wisdom of others is generally more eloquent than my own. Still, it was legendary rapper the Notorious B.I.G. who said, “even when I was wrong, I got my point across.” With that assurance, let’s move on. By the way, Nathan, that’s one.
I believe in a unified life. I believe that alienation, isolation, and compartmentalization of self are the results of internal divisions and multiple identities. I believe that fulfillment is a unification of our passions, such that what we study, where we live, who we love, how we speak, what we produce, and why we struggle are one. That the theory I learn in the classroom complements the music to which I listen. That the research I undertake is not absent in conversation with friends. We are fortunate, then, to study the liberal arts, a curriculum that advocates the how of intellectual thought, rather than the what. It allows, as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano put it, “bodas de la razón y el corazón” or a “marriage of the heart and mind.”
It is also true that we are privileged. We gather today in the nation’s oldest academic building to celebrate the nation’s oldest academic honor society on its 233rd birthday. We emphasize the triumphs of our minds, because we need not focus on our bodies. We are fed and clothed. We lack few, if any, necessities. This is, therefore, our mandate: to give of our own intellects in such a way that we enable others to pursue education and, through it, fulfillment of the spirit.
What we learn in lecture halls and seminar rooms is not useless, and we are a uniquely empowered group. Our responsibility is to others. As William and Mary students, we know this. More than three quarters of every class completes volunteer service during their time at the College. Nevertheless, the efforts will not be sustainable until students apply classroom knowledge to community service, especially after graduation. An impressive number of William and Mary graduates enter into non-profit and service-related careers, but improving the lives of others is not simply the job of the inner-city school teacher or the rural social worker. We must all concern ourselves with speaking for those who are silenced and magnifying the voices of the oppressed.
This initiation recognizes that each of us has done well. Now, I think, we are charged with fulfilling our joyful obligation to do good.
I end, as I began, with Biggie. “Stay far from timid. Only make moves when your heart’s in it, and live the phrase: the sky’s the limit.”
Go Tribe and Hark Upon the Gale.