Fred Anderson

Professor of History

Comments to the Inductees of Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Chapter of Colorado

University of Colorado, Boulder

2 May 2015

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, Honored Guests,

There may be an assignment more intimidating than giving a talk to a group of students being inducted into the oldest and most distinguished academic Honor society in the United States, but it’s hard to imagine one. It’s a great honor to be asked to speak to Phi Beta Kappa, of course, so I couldn’t think of a graceful way to decline the invitation last October when Associate Dean Boonin contacted me in his capacity as chapter president; but the knowledge that Ralph Waldo Emerson had spoken to the chapter at Harvard College in 1837 on a similar occasion, and that the result was “The American Scholar,” was enough to make my palms sweat and mouth parch in the mere anticipation of this afternoon’s event. Such was my sad state for much of last fall term, but I was at last settling into a determined frame of mind by Winter break, and indeed was revisiting Emerson’s 7,000-word oration with the intention of making a similarly learned address when, on January 7th, I received an email from Dr. Boonin with further instructions. “Now that I’ve gone through one of these,” he wrote, “I can say that we’re really looking for something relatively short, maybe about 8-10 minutes,” and helpfully included a copy of last Fall’s talk, by Jeff Cox, the Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs. “I’m pointing you to it,” the email continued, “because I think it was just about the right length and tone, though of course there are a lot of directions you can go with this and all of that is up to you.” So I read Jeff’s talk, and sure enough, it was a gem: brief and witty, serious in subject and yet light in tone. I knew at that moment I could only fail. I fell into despair.

Fortunately, however, the shelves of Norlin fairly groan with collections of long-forgotten speeches to honorary societies waiting, like life jackets on a ferry, for emergency use. Since I’m a historian, I went directly to the oldest ones of all—stuff so ancient that none of you would be likely to have heard it before, and which at any rate could no longer be covered by copyright.

And I must say that three of the oldest addresses of all, translated from Mesopotamian clay tablets, proved most helpful to me in preparing these remarks. The earliest one I was able to locate was delivered to the students being inducted into a civil engineering honorary society at the Ur Institute of Technology c. 2800 BCE. Because cuneiform writing was only then being worked out and the tablet was in poor condition, scholars have found this address a challenge to decipher. Its author is of course unknown, but internal evidence suggests he was Dean of the College of Engineering. “You’ve studied hard,” he said, “and you’ve mastered the new sciences of hydrology and architecture under the direction of the finest engineering professors in Mesopotamia. Now you will dedicate your careers to making the land between the rivers a paradise on earth! Vast stretches of our new irrigation system remain to be planned, and thousands of ziggurats are on the drawing-boards! The fate of civilization as future ages will know it depends on your ingenuity, and on your resolve to perfect the skills you have acquired at U.I.T. So serve Enlil and the other gods faithfully, always show up to work on time, and never lowball a government bid unless you’re 90 percent sure that you can gut the competition and make up your losses on the next round of contracts.” The tablet broke off at that point, but it was clear that the Dean anticipated what tens of thousands of subsequent speakers in similar settings have understood: if you give the honorees a little solid advice and express some confidence in their future, at least no one will blame you for holding up the party.

The most recent was the address that Hammurabi delivered in 1699 BCE to the equivalent of today’s Order of the Coif, at the Babylon School of Law. As befits an address by a head of state, it was short and to the point; indeed it was so brief that I can read it to you in its entirely. “At B.S.L. you’ve learned from the most distinguished legal scholars in the world,” he said. “You’ve worked hard to prepare for careers in the law, and—given the excellence of your academic records—I have no doubt that you will distinguish yourselves in public life. Complete your studies, therefore, with confidence and resolve! And when you have finished them, I trust you will do your duty and help bring order to my empire: to make it strong, to foster justice, to serve Marduk and the lesser gods, and to bring civilization to the barbarians on our frontiers. Should you fail in these tasks, of course, you shall surely suffer death.” His conclusion, I thought, sounded abrupt and perhaps a little harsh, but my liberal arts education instantly enabled me to put it in context. Virtually everything Hammurabi ever wrote either told people what to do or what not to do, and ended by mentioning that anyone who failed to comply would surely suffer death. That was Hammurabi for you: even though he was he was one of the first monarchs to propose government according to what we now call “the rule of law,” he was still King of kings, and by temperament, at least, a despot’s despot.

These were both addresses to professional honors societies, of course, and their practical bent was evident above all. Neither speaker (least of all Hammurabi) counseled his audience to think critically, much less to question authority; both assumed that the acquisition of high-order professional skills had been the principal goal of the students to whom they spoke. I was, therefore, both glad and relieved to find that the third address—the only one actually written by a student—took on themes more appropriate for today’s event. According to the scholarly commentary on the text, the verb forms and declensions indicated that the speaker was a young woman; a partially obscured note scratched on the back of the tablet indicated that she was valedictorian of the Sumer State University Class of 2015 BCE. The author’s name had crumbled away along with the lower right-hand corner of the tablet, but the address itself is virtually complete, and a close analysis of the text makes it clear that she was a student of the liberal arts—probably a History major—and president of the society into which she was welcoming a new crop of inductees.

“Congratulations to you all,” she began. “Some of you, like me, are seniors; I hope your job interviews have gone well. Mine haven’t. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for life outside the academy, and my only advice to those of you who are being inducted as underclassmen is to stay in school as long as you possibly can. At least right now the real world doesn’t look all that great. It is of course true that our great king Shulgi reigns over Elam, Assyria, and northwestern Mesopotamia—indeed, over all the four quarters of the world. And as you all know he has lately proclaimed himself a god, which is also a good thing; given the way things are going in Assyria, divine intervention may be our best hope of seeing peace in our lifetimes. Yet, however gloomy our immediate future may look, you and I have had the benefit of a fine liberal arts education here at Sumer State. Our studies have given us the capacity to think critically about the world, have fostered an appreciation of beauty and truth, have laid a foundation of general knowledge on which we can build for our whole lives, and have developed our skills in research and writing—all of which will be invaluable to us, whatever calling we may pursue. But most of all, we have been given the great gift of perspective—of knowing that long ago Ur rose to great glories, then was conquered by Sargon the Akkadian; that Akkad flourished, only to fall prey to the barbarian hordes from the Zagros; and that Sumer has risen in the present age to restore the ancient glory of Ur. Ours is the gift of knowing that the world will survive the evil day (may the gods delay it!) when our own glorious empire goes to meet its fate. Humanity will endure, and if we ourselves are unremembered four thousand years hence, the values and ideals that have inspired us in our studies will not be forgotten, provided only that we remain faithful to them, and teach them to our descendants. That’s why I’ve decided to commit a couple of years to teaching inner-city kids as part of the Teach for Sumer program, while I make up my mind about whether to go to grad school or try for a career in business or one of the learned professions. If in time I do decide to pursue an academic career, I want to do it for the right reasons. I won’t get rich as a professor, but by my research I’ll contribute some small part to the fund of human knowledge, and by my teaching I’ll take part in the greater project of sustaining the cultural legacy by which humanity may not only endure, but prevail over forces like those that are devastating in Assyria today, that seem to threaten the very bases of civilization. And besides that, I’ll have my summers off.” The rest of the tablet was missing.

I found that address fascinating, because it resonated uncannily with concerns that I felt intensely more than four decades ago at Colorado State University, when I was a biological sciences major struggling with the decision of whether or not to switch over to History. I knew perfectly well that scientists and engineers and doctors—heck, maybe even lawyers—could make the world a better place for people to live; but what, I wondered, could historians do?   As far as I could tell, historians read old documents and compared them to other old documents with scrupulous attention to analysis and accurate contextualization. What possible connection did that have with building a better world? The more I learned about history, the clearer it became that the historian’s main purpose in life was to tell stories about the past according to just two simple rules: they couldn’t make anything up, and they couldn’t leave anything out on grounds it was inconvenient or painful or embarrassing or failed to agree with the received wisdom. It was hard to see what practical good there was in that. Let alone how anyone could use it to earn a living.

Alas for me, I really liked the subject, and so kept taking History alongside my science courses as a kind of guilty pleasure, just because I enjoyed finding out about the past. And so, sometime in my sophomore year, when I realized that I was anticipating the coming quarter’s History classes a lot more eagerly than I was looking forward to The Principles of Organic Chemistry, I finally gave up the struggle and declared myself a History major. I hadn’t come as far in self-knowledge or ambition as the valedictorian of Sumer State’s class of 2015 BCE yet, and I had only the foggiest notion of what the value of History might be, but took the leap anyway. Blindly I committed myself to the study of the Past; the Future, I figured, could take care of itself. (Okay, I was nineteen. What did I know?)

Because all the most significant events in life are ones we can perceive only in retrospect, years passed before I understood that one of the great principles of a liberal arts education was staring me in the face at the moment I took that heedless plunge into my new major, my new life. All my worrying about what I could do with a History degree had been based on a faulty analogy between education and job training. What had happened to me in my freshman and sophomore years was not that I had been preparing myself to get a job, as I thought, but rather that I had been falling in love.

As many of you already know, falling in love has less to do with practicality than with joy. The very fact that I had been having fun learning history had made me even more deeply suspicious of the enterprise, for like many a serious young person I had assumed that while school is unquestionably good for you, it’s the opposite of fun. But Colorado State’s History department was full of superb teachers (like Bill Griswold and Art Worrall, now well struck in years, and Harry Rosenberg and others who have gone to their reward) who reconciled the seriousness of scholarship with the free play of ideas, who transmitted knowledge to their students with passion, and wit, and something like delight. The better I got to know my profs, the more I came to see that they were actually enjoying themselves more than any other group of grown-ups I had known. It was my first glimpse into what’s called the life of the mind, and seeing them live it helped me to begin imagining that I might be able to do so, too.

So I took up what became my life’s work without any noble or practical purpose, and not the foggiest idea of where it might lead. Eventually, in one of those retrospective realizations I spoke of a moment ago, I came to understand that knowing where it all might lead hadn’t been important at all. When you get to a certain point in life you simply see that love is its own justification, its own guide, its own reward; you come to understand that the journey, not its end, is what truly matters. That a decision I made with so little thought for the future in 1969 has brought me to this lectern in 2015 to congratulate you on your accomplishments as scholars delights me, of course. But far more important is the knowledge that you, too, have fallen in love with the disciplines you have begun to practice here at CU; that you have found it in yourselves to work hard at learning the craft of scholarly inquiry; that you as a consequence have begun to venture on the life of the mind in your own ways, for your own reasons, because you too have fallen in love with ideas.

The older members of a venerable society have invited you here to recognize your achievements with symbols: three Greek letters, a key, a certificate, and a secret handshake that you will try out this afternoon and almost certainly never use again. But in engaging the scholarly disciplines you now practice with emergent mastery, you confer on those of us who have had the privilege of teaching you, the singular honor of taking what we do seriously enough to give your hearts to it, too. Thus you renew our faith that the values and ideals we seek to serve will, in fact, outlive us. Thus you give us the incomparable gift of making it possible to go on believing that the life of the mind will continue, and that the scholarly values of free inquiry and rigorous criticism will not only endure, but prevail.


— Fred Anderson

Of course, as the Classics and History majors among you realize, I have here committed the sin of anachronism—although in my defense I would maintain that I did it innocently, and only in the interests of clarity. As those students know, people began to reckon dates according to the scheme that we now use only after Dionysius Exiguus invented the B.C./A.D. system in the sixth century of our era. So our author was in fact Valedictorian of the Class of the 26th Year of the Reign of Shulgi the Stupendous, the Year that Nineveh Suffered under the Pestilence of the Unappeasable Itch, the Two-hundred-and-twenty-fifth Year after the Great Inundation. But I digress.