11 months ago

This column, number 60 or so, will be my last as Secretary of The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Quarterly, since December of 2001, I have shared thoughts that I hoped would be of interest to members. Since 2011, I have also written a blog containing about 225 discrete postings. I can identify about a hundred public addresses, some fraction of the total, delivered at dinners, lunches, inductions, chapter installations, association meetings, presidential installations, and honors convocations in every state except Alaska and Idaho.

All this talking and writing is a considerable portion of the Secretary’s job. What has motivated me (and my predecessors) to do it? What, worth hearing, do we have to say?

The answer has three parts. First, the arts and sciences are a vital mainstay of American higher education. Second, they require constant advocacy. Third, Phi Beta Kappa is uniquely positioned to provide that advocacy. We who have been the heads of this organization over the decades, or centuries, are motivated to write and speak in support of the arts and sciences because Phi Beta Kappa has a unique responsibility toward the core disciplines and values that animate American higher education.

Despite the expectations of would-be reformers, higher education in America is neither systematic nor systematizable. It is many things collected under a single term. It will, and should, resist standardization and uniformity. Because we do not know the future, there are dangers in over-specific vocationalism. Smart investment is in flexibility. The future will reward those who think critically, exercise well- nourished sympathetic imagination, and exhibit intellectual agility, resilience, and resourcefulness. These traits are nourished in and through the arts and sciences, and the best way to prepare for the unknown is through broad engagement across many fields.

The search to find the next Secretary of The Phi Beta Kappa Society is currently in process. You can reach out to Ann.Hasselmo@academic-search.com for information. Due to the timing of the search, this outreach to her should be immediate.

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My Retirement from Phi Beta Kappa

1 year ago

Dear Members of Phi Beta Kappa,

After 14 enjoyable years as Secretary of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, I am writing to let you know of my upcoming retirement as of May 31, 2016. I look forward to joining my wife, Jean, at our home in Dickson, Tennessee.

Leaving the nation’s premier academic honor society will not be easy. It has been a privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with such a supportive Phi Beta Kappa Senate, an excellent staff, dedicated chapter and association officers, and enthusiastic members. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to talk to accomplished people like you about the topics and ideas they love.

Phi Beta Kappa is a special organization. Since the Society’s founding in 1776, it has celebrated excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and championed freedom of thought. During my tenure, I wanted to reinforce the role of Phi Beta Kappa as a more prominent and effective voice for the arts and sciences in American higher education and American life more broadly.

The National Arts & Sciences Initiative we are now pursuing, as charged by the Senate, is the outgrowth of that impetus. I am also deeply proud of the Visiting Scholar Program that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the impressive quality of our journal, The American Scholar, and our member newsletter, The Key Reporter. During my time with the Society, we added 23 chapters, and are strengthening our alumni associations through our new Charting Excellence campaign.

Phi Beta Kappa is now poised to create an even stronger legacy for bright futures. Know that you are part of a vibrant network of high achievers who celebrate the enduring value of learning for all of life.

Your dedication and support of the liberal arts and sciences have energized my role as chief executive officer of and spokesperson for the Society. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for helping to create the rich memories I will take with me to Dickson.

I also want you to know that a search is already under way for my successor. I look forward to working on a smooth and effective transition to the next Secretary.

Thank you all.

Best wishes.

John Churchill


A Call to Action!

1 year ago

To judge by his quiet, solemn face in the portrait that strikes your eye on entering Phi Beta Kappa’s headquarters, you would not think Ralph Waldo Emerson an especially rousing figure. Like so many of those three-named 19th century New Englanders—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, and more—his look suggests a stately contemplation, an endurance of hardship, or—at best—a recounting of some distant exploit.

And yet, Emerson’s 1837 oration to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society bursts with energy.  Colleges, he says, can only serve us when “they set the hearts of their youth on flame.”  Action, Emerson says, is genius, and the one thing in the world of value is the active soul:  “He who has put forth his total strength in fit action has the richest return of wisdom,” and “the final value of action . . . is, that it is a resource.”  Action leads to thought, which informs more action, and so on.  “This time,” he says, “is a very good time, if we but know what to do with it.”

For the sake of the arts and sciences Emerson loved, Phi Beta Kappa is prepared to make this time the best of times by launching our Keys to Action Week, November 30-December 5.   We urge you to join us this week in taking specific steps, day by day, to strengthen Phi Beta Kappa on our 239th birthday, and to place the arts and sciences at the forefront of the nation’s attention.

On Monday, you can show your Phi Beta Kappa pride by putting on your key and taking a #PBKSelfKey of yourself in front of your place of business.  Then post it on social media to show the opportunities afforded by arts and sciences.  On Tuesday, access Phi Beta Kappa’s Arts & Sciences are Key on-line toolkit and use the sample messages there to communicate with opinion-shapers and decision-makers.  Wednesday you can help support our chapters and associations by getting involved in their activities, and Thursday can be the day to commit to supporting our programs and publications.  Friday, make a gift in honor of our 239th anniversary.  Saturday, reenact the Raleigh Tavern origins of Phi Beta Kappa.  There’s much more about possible actions on our website.

Check out the rich, specific suggestions on making each day of Keys to Action Week distinctive and festive at www.pbk.org/keystoaction. Phi Beta Kappa: a strong legacy for bright futures.

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The NEH at 50

1 year ago

On September 29, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) turns fifty. On that date in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that established the NEH, as well as its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts. Since that time the two independent federal agencies have been on parallel tracks; each is currently funded at about $150 million annually.

Phi Beta Kappa is proud of its role in supporting the establishment of the NEH. In 1957, the Russian launch of Sputnik led to much soul-searching about American scientific preeminence. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, creating subsidies for scientific and technological training. The sciences were also buoyed up by the National Science Foundation.

By the early sixties, supporters of the humanities felt that federal support was needed for those fields. So, in 1963, The American Council of Learned Societies, The Council of Graduate Schools, and The United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, as we were then styled, commissioned a study of the state of the humanities in American life. The Report of the Commission on the Humanities, released in 1964, addressed America’s leadership in the world, and even national defense. “The challenge,” states the report, “is no less critical and direct than the one we have already met with our strong advocacy of … science.” The report succeeded in making the case that the humanities do public good and deserve public support.

The work of the NEH over a half century has richly confirmed the findings. The NEH has supported research leading to more than 7,000 books, trained almost 100,000 teachers, and generated $1.66 billion to support the humanities through challenge grants. The NEH was instrumental in the birth of Digital Humanities, digitizing early newspapers and the papers of major American figures from George Washington to Jonas Salk. Innumerable films, exhibitions, seminars, and other events have enriched American cultural life, on campus and off, for a half century.

The NEH states that it “is about the democratization of ideas, providing broad and equal access to advances in knowledge and to the nation’s rich cultural heritage.”   Under the leadership of William “Bro” Adams, the agency is currently emphasizing “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.” As a part of that effort, the NEH recently commissioned thirty-six Public Scholars to write accessible books dealing with aspects of American culture and history.

As the NEH enters its second half-century, Phi Beta Kappa looks forward to strengthened support for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In a world increasingly characterized by conflict between perspectives that understand each other imperfectly, or as caricatures, or not at all, the work of the humanities is more important than ever. The humanities are our gateway to coping, and even flourishing, in a world of differences, and belong with the sciences at the core of the liberal arts.

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2 years ago

David Bromwich was recently asked to address the Yale Political Union on the topic “Resolved: Embrace Online Education.”  His defense of the negative was recently published in The New York Review of Books (July 9, 2015).  In the early going of his argument, he introduces the word “robotification,” denoting the tendency to make human life ever more machine-like, with virtues reduced to efficiency and speed, and scant attention paid to outcomes that fail to be measurable in stipulated units.  Robotification is the notion that “all the valuable human skills and varieties of knowledge are things that can be assimilated in a machinelike way. We can know the quantity of information involved, and we can program it to be poured into the receiving persons as a kind of ‘input’ that eventually yields the desired ‘product.'”  This is the model of industrial production and mechanistic utility.  But is it an adequate model for construing human interaction?

Bromwich argues that the fine detail of human exchanges—the sort of thing that typically happens in a classroom—involves abilities that elude mechanical replication:  “When you listen to the exchange of well-formulated thoughts in a discussion of a complex work of art or thought—a human document concerning human actions—you learn a good deal that can’t be quantified, packaged, or transmitted by an efficient impersonal medium, no matter how up-to-date, no matter how well engineered.” Furthermore, he argues, there is a recognition of facial expressions—subtle, but recognizable—that suggest a readiness to comment, a puzzlement, and other, different states relevant to the conversation but below the level of explicit engagement.  This is lost in a machine environment. Whether it could be replicated, at what price and with what reliability, is unknown.

In 2000: A Space Odyssey, the interactive computer, HAL, seems attuned to human emotions. Indeed, HAL shares them, including jealousy and suspicion.  But what repertoire of behaviors and responses is presupposed?  What would make us conclude that Siri is honest, or condescending, or sarcastic?

Bromwich’s analysis goes much further, into the unacknowledged and unreckoned “externalities” that attend a machine-oriented culture, social dislocations and the like, that have profound impacts of human life.  But the key point about the limits of machine intelligence is nearer at hand and simpler.  It is that language is a human phenomenon resting on the plenum of unpredictable human responses and reactions.  It rests and moves in that embodied context.  In order to capture all the potential for meaning in language, we would have to chart and replicate all the pre-existing conditions and capacities that underlie recognition of meaning.  That means digging down through everything from a raised eyebrow to whatever it is that makes some music sad, some happy, some cartoonish, and so on.  And so on.  And so on.

The point is in the “and so on.”  To identify, and capture for machine replication, some sublinguistic capacity, we have to describe it in terms of other capacities, which will do for the nonce, but not absolutely.  They too will have to be described, and so on.  What we have is a version of Wittgenstein’s city, from Philosophical Investigations, that contains in a park a map of itself.  The question is, does the embedded map contain a map of the city, too?  A complete one?  What is left out?

The map could not, in principle, be complete.  The picture contains itself, like mirrors receding into the distance, and the problem is logical, not technical.  Meaning goes trailing off into infinity.

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And Yet . . .

2 years ago

Emperor of Rome from 159-180 C.E., Marcus Aurelius is most, and most justly, famous for writing the Meditations while campaigning against barbarians along the Danube.  The never-ending campaigns gave him material for composing a classic Stoic handbook: “First thing every morning tell yourself: today I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor. … And I know that these wrongdoers are by nature my brothers….”  And in the next paragraph: “What am I but a little flesh, a little breath, and the thinking part that rules the whole?”

Marcus knew that the cosmos was ordered by reason, and that by regulating his own life accordingly, he could achieve mastery of what he could, and acceptance of what he could not.  Life seems, in this way, orderly. Everything has its place, everything is as it is for a reason, and nothing, finally, is inexplicable.  It is the order that we find in things that is their meaning.

And yet.  Consider this passage:  “We should also pause to consider how charming and how graceful are the unexpected effects of nature’s work. When bread is baking . . . cracks appear in the crust.  Although these would seem to confound the baker’s design, they … help to arouse our appetite.” He goes on to mention cracks in figs, olives, “the golden grain’s drooping head,” the lion’s furrowed brow, and so on.  It seems that undesigned, irrational nature also  carries messages.

And so, “the perceptive man … will take a peculiar pleasure in everything, even in the humble or ungainly parts that contribute to the making of the whole.”  Indeed, Marcus goes a step further.  The close student of nature will “warm to an old man’s strength or an old woman’s beauty,” while turning with less enthusiasm to the naturally occurring strength and beauty of youth.  We should wonder that it occurred to the Emperor, waiting along the Danube for the barbarians, to see the meaning in cracks of bread and the waning strength of the old, as well as in smooth loaves and sleek limbs.

What else does it take an ungainly perspective to see? Whatever is unaccounted by the system we endorse, whatever is left out by the categories of perception we accept.  That’s why it requires a lifetime of learning, and why love of learning is the guide of life.

(The Emperor’s Handbook is a translation of the Meditations by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks, Scribner, 2002.)

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New Every Spring

2 years ago

Some signs of spring we anticipate, though expectation makes them no less wonderful.  There are the early japonicas and crocuses.  Blossoms arrive on redbuds and dogwoods.  Daffodils open. The thick shoots of hostias and tulips muscle up.

But every spring also brings something to notice for the first time.  This year, for me, it was the bright green new grass in pastures, coming up in contrast to the pale gold of last year’s tall sage grass.  Yes, I know it’s actually “sedge grass,” but I can’t bring myself to write it or, God forbid, pronounce it that way.  Cut me some slack on this one.

Along the roads near our house, the fields rise and fold down, dipping into meandering creases that disappear into the neighboring woods.  Sage grass stands the winter, in full coverage sometimes, sometimes scattered.  And like the clinging leaves of the lower branches of the beech trees, the sage bleaches through the cooler months.  From near russet it fades to yellow and then to a pallid gold, soft and rich. Like much in nature that is worthless as the world counts worth, it promises some great value if only we could read its coinage.  Then the grass greens up underneath the sage, bright and dense, and you see the payout.   It is the contrast of new and old, living and dead, supple and crisp.  The sage waves stiffly in the breeze; the short grass curls at its roots.

Until this spring, I had never seen this juxtaposition of pale gold and bright green.  I guess my eye had passed it by countless times.  But I hadn’t seen it, and so this year, this spring, it was new.  How much is laid out before us, unseen?  There is a lot to be said for just looking, not searching with a list-maker’s eye for the marks that will let us say, “Ah, yes, a towhee.  Check that off.”  Instead, it helps to suspend the categorizing impulse, the sorting and naming, to be open to what is not yet named and cubbyholed.

Consideration of experiences of this sort, the ones that leak past the familiar categories, can save us from what I am tempted to call “epistemological arrogance.”  That phrase is probably self-referential, being itself epistemologically arrogant.  But what I mean is the unjustified assumption that the sorts of things we already know how to recognize are the only things there are, or the only things that count.  This assumption is worth bringing into question, over and over again, because everything about our powers of perception is the product of layer upon layer of contingencies—in the evolutionary histories of our species and its predecessors, all the way back, in the evolution of the cultures that shape our lives, our languages, and in the accidents of our own, idiosyncratic lives.  The combined effects of these myriad factors make it easy for us to see and grant reality to some things, hard in the case of others, and perhaps impossible in some, like the colors birds must see with the features of their retinas that ours lack.

In “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth takes the reader into a communion with Nature that moves from very particular experiences—his rambles along the River Wye at various stages of life—to a vast, vague “sense of something far more deeply interfused, a motion and a spirit,” not confined to any particular thing or experience, available in all.  But having arrived at that far remove, he returns immediately to the particular:

Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

What stands out here for me is the opening “therefore.”  It is not despite the omnipresence of the wonderful that we can find it only in the particular, but because of it. And it is not despite our participation in the creation of our experience that it brings disclosure, but because of it.  Our experience reveals not just what there is, but what we are as well.  And if we stay supple, we are something new, every spring.

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2 years ago

It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that you can’t step into the same river twice, giving us a memorable illustration of the principle that things change.  The very nature of things is change. Actually, he should have said that you can’t step into the same river even once, since it changes while you are stepping. The pace of change in higher education these days is evidence for that stronger claim. While we are busy giving an account of things, they move on and our description is about something now passed by.

Consider a couple of extreme, but perhaps telling, events of the week that is passing as I write. In Arizona, the legislature zeroed out the state’s support of two very large community colleges, in Pima and Maricopa counties. Meanwhile, across the country and in a sector of higher education far, far away, the trustees of Sweet Briar, a women’s college in rural Virginia, fiercely beloved by many, famous for its equestrian programs, announced that the college would close in the coming summer. Here are resonant, baleful messages concerning institutions with very different missions, different clienteles, and different stressors. People are asking whether these are one-off cases or harbingers of much more to come.

The answer is, likely, that they are neither. State support for higher education around the country may continue to contract, though it may seldom be withdrawn completely. Independent institutions are likely to continue to face significant challenges, though maybe seldom will they succumb. What is clear is that American higher education is illustrating another, perhaps deeper, tenet of Heraclitus—that things are held in tension by the strife of contending forces.  And that, of course, is why things change. Opposing pushes and pulls shove them this way and that.

So what are the stakes of Phi Beta Kappa in this dynamic situation?   Because the great strength of American higher education lies in its diversity—diversity in institutional type and purpose, but also in mode of governance—we have to regret diminution in that diversity.  At a humane level we have to have empathy with the grief of those who have been devoted to these damaged or lost institutions.

Our commitment though, is to a certain sort of education, education in the liberal arts and sciences.  And that occurs in many contexts:  small liberal arts colleges, major state universities, middle-sized institutions, HBCUs, single-sex institutions, community colleges, and more.  No one can now predict with assurance what the mix of types will be in a couple of decades, or whether, as some current prophets proclaim, much of what we think of as higher education will take place outside colleges and universities entirely, in some parallel system of learning and credentialing.

Our stake is that the transformative power of education in the arts and sciences should remain the primary value of higher education.  Why? Because arts and sciences open opportunity, for individuals and society, because they drive innovation and ingenuity, and because they are investment in America.  Arts and sciences are education for all of life, for the unpredictable.  While we cannot predict much about the changes ahead, we can be confident that we will need that.

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Collecting Badges, or Becoming Someone?

2 years ago

The method of analysis is a characteristic feature of early modern thought—look at Francis Bacon or Rene Descartes.  Things and processes can be taken apart into their constituent elements in order to be understood.  We see what things really are by inspecting their parts individually.  There is much to be said for this method.  Big, messy systems can be clarified and made intelligible. This logic is now being applied to higher education.

Kevin Carey’s column In The New York Times, March 8, 2015, is titled, “Changing College for Good.”  The premise is that college is about credentialing, so it is the credentialing issue that must be resolved before the technology revolution can transform higher education.  He writes, “the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price.  What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job.  And that is mostly what college students are paying for.”

In Carey’s view, separating the credentialing function from the degree is to be done through badges, “a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges.”  Badges, he thinks, can provide “exponentially more information” than a mere degree.  In my mind’s eye I see a Boy Scout’s sash sewn thick with marks of accomplishment in specific tasks.  If college is about no more than accumulating a set of discrete competencies, then surely badges, and the cafeteria-style education they imply, must be the wave of the future.

But is that what college is all about?  Carey hints that he knows better.  “Almost,” “mostly,” and similar hedges crop up in his paragraphs, as when he says that the descriptors “‘Harvard graduate’ and ‘Harvard dropout’ tell the job market almost exactly the same thing….”

What Carey ignores is the possibility—the reality—that breaking down college into pieces and then offering the disassembled pieces fails to capture something important about college.  Credentialing is a big part of the story.  But it may not be the most important part, even if it pays the bills, both for the college and for the graduate.

For many people college is, and for most people college could and should be, a personal transformation.  It is, or could and should be, a time of exploration, inquiry, reflection, and acquisition of skills and knowledge across a broad front that takes the student from the cusp of adulthood toward a maturing humanity.  The college where I spent many years, Hendrix, has as its motto a Greek phrase translatable as “Toward Fulfilled Humanity.”

Here are two very different visions of higher education.  One sees the student solely as an economic entity, a collector of credentials, to whose attention never come questions about the meaning of things and questions about value.  This student proceeds through college accumulating marks external to him- or herself.  If there is inner change, who knows how or why?  The other sees the student whole, with a economic dimension, yes, but with a wider life to be shaped, a humanity to be thought about, crafted, even fulfilled.

If we allow that comprehensive vision of the student to be replaced by the narrow view that sees a pile of disconnected parts as better than the whole, then we will devalue institutions that serve the whole.  We will forget the bigger purpose they have served.  We must insist continually on that broader and deeper purpose.  College is about more than badges.  It is about becoming yourself, taking strides toward maturity, and entering a world primed for thought and action across the spectrum of life.

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“Great Job!”

2 years ago

One of the most delightful elements of Phi Beta Kappa’s National Arts & Sciences Initiative is the opportunity to greet old friends and make new ones among the people who are involved with the Society around the country.  We were in Seattle recently.  That “we,” by the way, is the plain, literal first-person plural, not the royal or the editorial arrogation.  “We” included Society President Kate Soule, Associate Secretary Ronnie Roha, Initiative Director Anne Tria Wise, Deputy Director Rhiana Quick, and I.  The occasion of the visit was a Key of Excellence Award for the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA).  We honored WaCLA at an event on the home turf of The Seattle Opera and The Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall in The Seattle Center.  We also took advantage of the visit to have a working breakfast with the leadership of the Puget Sound Phi Beta Kappa Association.

Old friends at breakfast included Gerry Oppenheimer, Linda Willenberg, and Judith Crutcher.  One of the new friends turned out to be chocolate maven Sandra Andrews-Strasko. You can check out her expertise at http://chocolatespeak@blogspot.com.  I’m not going to dwell on her chocolate lore, large though it is, but on a vignette she supplied in the conversation.

The general topic was the degree of awareness of Phi Beta Kappa among contemporary college students–our presence in their understanding as an aspiration.  Sandra told a story that illustrates the importance of personal contact in reaching people’s sense of meaning.  It applies to aspirational awareness just as well as to her experience.  She kindly agreed to reproduce her commencement experience in written form:

“When college graduation ceremonies are shown on television and film, they always seem to be small, cozy events with just enough students to fill a small lawn on a tree-filled quad. However, when I graduated from the University of Washington in 1998, I was only one among thousands of graduates filling the athletic field of Husky Stadium.  I was happy and proud, but the ceremony felt so massive and anonymous that I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there.

“In preparation for the event I had donned my honor cords and affixed the Phi Beta Kappa pin I inherited from my grandfather, Frederick N. Andrews, onto my graduation gown.  As I stepped onto the dais to receive my diploma, the man in impressive robes shook my hand, and then did a double-take, exclaiming enthusiastically “Phi Beta! Congratulations!”

“That moment of recognition from a faculty member whom I had never met before lasted maybe three seconds.  But it made the ceremony suddenly very personal and meaningful to me.  I felt that I was part of something worth being proud of and excited about.  I also felt that my five years of blood, sweat, and tears were being recognized in a special way.”

The message here is direct and important: personal contact matters.  We all know that.  What Sandra’s story shows, though, is that even the industrially-scaled activities that characterize so much of contemporary life can offer openings for humane interaction at a personal level.  The scripts of big events may not specify the content of such interactions.  How could they, when the spontaneity of the expression is everything?   But there are openings.  There are opportunities to congratulate achievement that is specific to the individual, in her own particular circumstance, right there, right then.  And the same is true of awakening and shaping aspirations, early in the student’s career.

Our success, at Phi Beta Kappa, will rest not only on personally congratulating success–though we should certainly do that.  It will rest as well on personally acknowledging aspiration, and defining it, both for those who ultimately may be inducted as members, and for many who may not.  That’s where we can be, it may turn out, of widest usefulness, in helping students define their aspiration as a love of learning, through the arts and sciences.

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Love of learning is the guide of life.