Resolved: That Phi Beta Kappa is Gloriously Useless

Phi Beta Kappa Society

Leroy S. Rouner 

Phi Beta Kappa Society 39th Triennial Council 
October 2000 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I’m not sure whether the invitation to speak here is my reward for having said something imaginative, or my punishment for having said something outrageous which I must now defend before 400 of the smartest people in America. But, yes, I did say that Phi Beta Kappa is gloriously useless in the hallowed pages of the Key Reporter, no less. I'm glad I said it, and here's why.

 Americans are a people who both built a better mousetrap and dreamed a grander dream. At our best, our practicality has enabled our visions.  For example, Harvard College, our first venture in higher education, was not established as some ivory tower;  it was founded for the practical purpose of providing a literate ministry to the churches of Puritan New England.

 So, too, the Lewis and Clark expedition and the subsequent Westward Movement were the same happy blending of vision for what Stephen Vincent Benet called our "Western Star" --- "fool's silver of the sky" --- and the practical heroism of men and women who found their way to the headwaters of the Missouri, and on to the coasts of the Pacific.

 But we are not always at our best. Our visionaries sometimes become demagogues, seduced by the grandeur of their dreams; and our mouse-trap builders too often become self-absorbed and greedy. Our only indigenous philosophy is pragmatism, the view that use determines meaning and that ideas are instruments for achieving goals. When one adds to that the indigenous American suspicion of intellectuals whose ideas do not have some obvious practical application, it is clear that the dreamers are the people who must justify themselves in our popular culture, not the practitioners. I am a dreamer, and so are you. We belong to Phi Beta Kappa, which is gloriously useless.

 Today the mousetrap has a dot-com address, and the college kids who really want to major in philosophy or Greek or English are confronted by parents who have ponied up megabucks for their education and who ask the realistic, down-to-earth, practical question --- with poignant sincerity, entirely in the interest of this dearly beloved, hideously expensive child --- "But darling, what can you do with that?"

 This is one of life's ironies. Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens when in fact it was the youth of Athens who were trying to corrupt him. These Athenian rich kids didn't want philosophical talk about the true nature of justice. They wanted to learn rhetoric: how to make an effective speech about justice in the Athenian Senate. Socrates thought it was important to know what you were talking about, but they wanted a short course in how to get elected without really knowing anything.

 Today, the youth of America are being corrupted by their parents. The usefulness-or "relevance" – these parents lovingly espouse is, however, not an appropriate criterion for choosing a college major, for two reasons.

 First, you don't really have any way of knowing what is going to be useful in the future. That is the fly in the ointment of Utilitarianism. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is a lofty goal because of its reasonableness and fairness, but it is impossible to predetermine practical means for achieving it. We are left with ideological commitments to trickle-down economics on the right or government aid programs on the left, but we often cannot even recognize when these experiments in practicality actually worked. Did Reaganomics work? It depends on whether the economist you ask is a Democrat or a Republican.

 The same is true for college students. You can't predict what is going to be useful even if you know what you want to do in the future. My son Jonathan focused on English literature in high school but decided to major in economics and political science in college because he wanted to be an investment banker. Today he is a partner in a major New York investment bank where he does mergers and acquisitions and has an annual income somewhat in excess of my total retirement fund. Looking back, he says that an English major would have been more useful for him than economics and political science, because his first job after college was with the Morgan Bank, which put him in a nine-month training program for everything you need to know about investment banking; thus he could have majored in anything in college.

 Crunch time in his present job comes when he has to give a 40-minute speech to the directors of a company, none of whom are up to speed on the merger or acquisition under consideration, explaining to them how he arrived at an evaluation of the company's worth, what his strategy is for selling or buying it, and why the services of his particular bank can be especially helpful. He has to write a I5-page paper that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; is clear, comprehensive, and persuasive. That's what English majors do.

 The second reason is more serious. "Use" is not an appropriate criterion for choosing a college major because education in the liberal arts and sciences is not vocational/technical training. Its goal is not specific, narrow expertise in a practical skill, but broad acquaintance and deep appreciation of cultural traditions. That is why we have distribution requirements. A liberal education is not really supposed to prepare you for anything except "the company of educated men and women" in the continually surprising adventure of life. And when undergraduates complain about distribution requirements-"Why do I have to take a science course? I'm not going to be a scientist."-we reply simply that a well-educated person needs to know something about science. In other words, "It's good for you."

 There is always the temptation to justify the liberal arts and sciences by their usefulness-you can't get a good job without a college degree- but the real purpose of higher education has never been primarily that it was going to be useful in this narrow sense. And nowhere in academia have the life of the mind and the character of the human spirit for their own sake been more energetically endorsed than in Phi Beta Kappa, which is not an institution with practical goals, but a celebration. We are more like a party than a program.

 But what makes uselessness glorious? Or to put it somewhat differently, if use is not an appropriate criterion for decision making in the academic life, what is?


 Next time you come to Boston, take a walk down Commonwealth Avenue to the Boston University School for the Arts, and look at the huge, blown-up photographs of one kid playing the Paganini violin concerto, and another doing a speech from Shakespeare, and so on. At the bottom of each of these wonderful posters is scrawled the message, "Learn what you love." That's what education in the liberal arts and sciences is all about: discovering not just something that you are good at, but something that you care about, some- thing you can give yourself to, some- thing you can lose yourself in, some- thing you love.

 And here's another irony. At this point, the wishy-washy, hands-off liberalism of the parents redeems them and they say, "Well, dear, whatever makes you happy." Which is the right thing to say. My son Timmy, of blessed memory, wrote a senior thesis evaluating several private secondary schools. It was called "Too Much Success: Not Enough Happiness."

 The virtues of love as a criterion for choosing a college major — which is the example we've been talking about — are several. First, it is not pretentious. "Use" is pretentious because it claims to know something about the future that it doesn't really know. Love is immediate, and knows what it is talking about. Right now, I just love Sanskrit, chemistry, international relations.

 Second, love as a criterion guarantees that you will work to your highest potential, because you are self-motivated:  you love it. Finally, it provides the surest basis for life-long learning- which we all extol, but which often doesn't happen- because it is part of who you are, and not just something you think, often wrongly, that you can use.

 Which takes us back to Socrates. The best thing ever written on the philosophy of education is Plato's Protagoras, in which one of these Athenian rich kids wants to study with Protagoras, a Sophist, an ethical relativist who will teach the kid how to make a good speech without knowing what justice or whatever really means. The young man, one Hippocrates, asks Socrates to make the arrangement for him. But Socrates asks him the crucial question about education, and that is, "If you study with this fellow, what will he make of you?" This is not a question that most college deans' offices like to talk about in this post in loco parentis era. Still, the fact is that a college education feeds an adolescent in one end and gets a young adult out the other.  In the process of those four years that person has changed significantly, and you and I have been agents of that change.

 We say, “Hey, listen, I just teach history.  I’m not their mother or their priest or their shrink.”  That’s true.  A college is not a family or a church or a hospital.  Still, what happens, in the course of what we do, is soul making.  When these kids graduate, what we hope for them is that they will be good at whatever they have majored in, how- ever they may wish to use it, and that in joining the company of "educated men and women" they will have learned something that will help them be good citizens, good husbands and wives, good parents, good people.

 The popular image of Phi Beta Kappa is that it is not about this moral character stuff, it is just about being smart. There are indeed some chapters that elect people simply on the basis of their grade-point average, but that is not what our charter says, and this is important, for the following reason:

 There are probably more genuinely brilliant people in American higher education today than there have ever been in the past. At the same time, there is probably less genuine human wisdom available than there was a generation or two ago.

 Phi Beta Kappa was never just about being smart. It was also about being good; and that is the combination that produces the wisdom we so sorely need. Phi Beta Kappa is gloriously useless because it is not an instrument for reaching a goal; it is a celebration of the love of learning, of the mind's adventure and the spirit's quest, simply and solely for their own sake. 

Leroy S. Rouner is professor of philosophy, religion, and philosophical theology and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University.