O, Sea!” is not exactly the tone at The Breakers, a resort hotel quite literally atop the beach at Palm Beach, Florida, where the 43rd Phi Beta Kappa Triennial Council gathered a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to careful, off-season calendar work, we were able to get into this grand vestige of Henry Flagler’s Florida railroad empire, and to bring Phi Beta Kappa’s Enlightenment dignity into the context of the over-the-top opulence of a vanished era. My own reactions to the juxtaposition ran a wide gamut, but it worked out beautifully, and, My Heavens, how nice it was.
In that nice setting we did good work. Kate Soule of Dartmouth was elected president for 2012-2015, and Kate Berheide of Skidmore was elected vice president. There is a raft of new senators. Check out the web site (pbk.org) for a list of the very distinguished and capable people who have agreed to tend Phi Beta Kappa’s purposes and aspirations.
We added three new chapters to our constellation, bringing the total to 283, once these have been installed in the winter to come: Creighton University, George Mason University, and Oklahoma State University. What a deep pleasure it is to think that from next spring on, for untold years to come, really great students will be honored on those campuses with a badge of distinction and given an admonition, let us hope, that with success comes the responsibility to use it to make the world richer in peace and justice.
We have been moving, over the last decade, to transform our Council meetings. Those who have attended many can remember when the tone of the experience was similar to a three day faculty meeting, with intervals of contentious wrangling. Certainly we should always struggle among ourselves for the best expressions, in word and action, of our values. But happily, we are doing a much better job now of structuring our struggles in civil processes. The result is a savings of time and energy at the Council itself.
We are using that time and energy for the serious sport of intellectual exploration. There were five major speakers in two and a half days: Lisa Pratt of Indiana University, on life on Mars; Teofilo Ruiz of UCLA, on those who got broken in 1492; Trevor Pinch of Cornell, on the impact of the Moog synthesizer on 20th century music and culture; Patricia Spacks of Virginia, who received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities, on the pleasures and profits of reading; and Martha Nussbaum, who collected the Sidney Hook Memorial Award, on the value and virtues of the liberal arts and sciences. It was a great, celebratory time.
Speaking of awards, the 43rd Council saw the inauguration of a new Phi Beta Kappa prize, the President’s Award, given in the tangible form of the Judith Krug Medal. Judith was Phi Beta Kappa’s vice president from 2006 to 2009. She devoted her life and career to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She was its founding director till her untimely death. So all of the meaning of Judith’s devotion to our dearest values is loaded into this award. It was given in Palm Beach to Joe Gordon of Yale, a Phi Beta Kappa Senator from 1994 to 2012, and president, 2000-2003. He also held practically every other position of responsibility and trust the Society can offer. He has been Phi Beta Kappa’s sage and wise guide through a critical tenth of its history. We will miss his presence on the senate, but since he has graced the Krug Medal as its first recipient, Phi Beta Kappa now has a grand gift, made significant both by its naming and the naming of its first bearer, to express and embody its values. Thanks, Judith. Thanks, Joe.
Photo at top: Council reception at The Breakers, photo courtesy of John Kuchle.