Turning off Cherry Street onto Broadway in Granville, Ohio, in the horizontal sunlight of a fair afternoon in late spring, you are ready to believe that some magic has placed contemporary automobiles on a boulevard through a prosperous 19th century New England village. Locals explain the preservation: First, an ambitious canal flooded out, then the railroads passed by to the north, and the interstate went by to the south. So Granville, founded by stout settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1805, in the valley of Raccoon Creek, never got around to replacing its Federal and Greek Revival churches, inns, and houses. The great “industry” of the town became education, and so even today Denison University soars on the hill above the village, its roofs and lanterned steeples peeking through the massed maple greenery.
I was in town for commencement. And a Phi Beta Kappa chapter centennial. In truth, I was a year late. But one hundred one is a number with its own symmetry. And what’s a year among ancient friends?
Like so much of my work, this visit blended institutional with personal pleasures. My own ancestors ─ Connecticut origins ─ had settled a nearby corner of Ohio just about the time Granville appeared. And one of them, my great-great-grandfather, went skiving off down the Ohio River to Arkansas in the days when Jackson was fighting the Brits at New Orleans. So I felt some local, personal kinship, as well as the kinship of Phi Beta Kappa’s purposes and values with the great work of Denison University.
The juxtaposition of personal and more general patterns of meaning, and the attendant pleasures, led me into reflection about the ambiguities of “us” and “ours.” I have often thought it odd that English doesn’t discriminate between the “we” that includes the speaker and those spoken to (“We will win!”) and the “we” that includes the speaker and some others but not those addressed (“We will bury you!”). Are there languages that do make this distinction? I don’t know. But maybe it’s a good thing to have the ambiguity. It may be that very ambiguity that eases the growth of the circle of inclusion to become steadily larger, so that “we” includes more and more of “us.” A scan of the graduates at Denison, and of the Phi Beta Kappa inductees, suggests that the circle grows well there. And not by accident.
When Picasso altered the face of his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, people complained that she didn’t look like it. The painter reassured them, saying, in effect, “Don’t worry. She will.” My enjoyment of an ancestral affinity with the origins of a distinguished college in Ohio may seem like partiality on my part, making parochial values that we all hope should be very widely shared. “All well and good,” you might say, “but this isn’t my heritage.” My response is like the painter’s: Don’t worry, it will be. As the work of the liberal arts and sciences takes deeper and broader root in American culture, this heritage ─ and more important, this project for our common future ─ comes more and more to belong to all of us. At Phi Beta Kappa our job is to make that so.