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Stanford Report, June 14, 2000

Farm boy turned Nobel winner provides example to Phi Beta Kappa initiates


Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach exhorted Phi Beta Kappa initiates to strive to achieve worthy goals in life even if they seem impossible during a speech at the society's annual chapter meeting on June 9.

At the start of commencement weekend, 170 juniors and seniors gathered in Memorial Auditorium to listen to Herschbach's keynote speech, titled "The Impossible Takes a Little Longer," as they were inducted into the nation's oldest academic honor society.

Herschbach, a Harvard chemistry professor, said he took the title from a favorite saying of his father: "The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer." The Stanford graduate said he came to think of the impossible "as a challenge to strive for worthy goals, even when conventional wisdom presumes they are out of reach. The opportunity to take part in such striving, and to help others to do so, is a joy beyond measure."

Herschbach, a member of the Class of 1954, has personally exemplified "the impossible." A farm boy who grew up near then-rural Cupertino, Herschbach was the first person in his family to attend college. He joined Harvard's faculty in 1963 and went on to receive the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in chemical dynamics.

"In your college years, you Phi Beta Kappa graduates have done the difficult very well," he said. "Now we look forward to seeing what you do when you've been at it a little longer."

Based on speeches by some of the initiates, Herschbach probably won't be disappointed. The students' wide-ranging interests personify Phi Beta Kappa, which recognizes "the excellence and breadth" of an undergraduate education. The Greek letters stand for words that mean "Love of wisdom, the guide of life." To be considered for election, students must have taken at least three courses each in the humanities; science, engineering and mathematics; and the social sciences. Only one-tenth of a graduating class may be selected.

Holly Thomas, a political science major who wants to attend law school, discussed her experiences as an African American traveling in southern Africa for her research on transitions in justice.

"I learned that our education cannot always provide us with the answers we seek, or require," Thomas said. "But . . . I also learned that our education can lead us to ask the right questions, and to open doors to new understandings. And, in the process, I learned exactly what true learning could be."

Yonatan Eyal, a history major who will pursue graduate studies at Harvard, said he appreciated being able to work with leading scholars in his field. One of the lessons he learned is the importance of contributing to, and being part of, a broader community of scholars. "The idea of community applies no less to Stanford, which has tried to foster a sense of academic inclusiveness for undergraduates," Eyal said. "I am grateful to Stanford for an intangible yet valuable gift: my own scholarly identity."

Chemistry Professor Robert Waymouth, president of the local Phi Beta Kappa chapter, told students that the honor of being elected to the society also brings with it responsibility "to aspire to the ideals of liberal scholarship." He bemoaned the polarization between the arts and sciences -- symbolized at Stanford as the divide between "fuzzies" and "techies" -- as the antithesis of liberal scholarship.

"As Phi Beta Kappa initiates, you have proved that the existence of these two cultures is not a commentary on the limitations of the human mind, but rather a product of institutional and cultural lassitude," he said.

"Your responsibility, should you choose to accept it, is to shake off the cultural ennui that polarizes our intellectual discourse, and to show, by your words and deeds, that the hallmark of a liberal mind is a vibrant curiosity unconstrained by past intellectual pursuits!"

This curiosity was exemplified by Scott Stonington, a co-terminal student in anthropology, who talked about his experiences doing fieldwork in Ghana, Bali and Madagascar. Each time, Stonington said, he set out to answer a specific theory-driven question and accidentally became an expert in something totally different. The student said such intellectual curiosity is applauded at Stanford, which he described as "a community based on a mutual quest to illuminate the bizarrest reaches of human knowledge." Stonington added that one of his greatest fears of leaving Stanford is that he won't find such a supportive intellectual and personal community. He encouraged his fellow initiates to create their own open-minded communities wherever they end up.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the society's teaching prize to classics Professor Marsh McCall, who was selected by a committee of Phi Beta Kappa students in the Class of 2000 who were elected as juniors.

"This is an absolute, total surprise," said a grinning McCall, as he accepted the award. "I don't even have a tie!" The founding dean of Continuing Studies recounted how, an hour earlier, he had been sitting at home watching the men's baseball team beat the Ragin' Cajuns of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. In the eighth inning, his wife (who was in on the secret) told him that they had to leave to attend the Phi Beta Kappa meeting. "I left against my will and I refused to put on a tie," he said. "I said, 'I don't want to go, this is where I want to be.' But now this is where I want to be."

After the keynote speech, John Bravman, vice provost of undergraduate education, announced the names of each initiate. They crossed the stage to shake the hands of President Gerhard Casper and the Hon. Pamela Ann Rymer, vice chair of the Board of Trustees and a U.S. Circuit Court judge from Pasadena.

As the ceremony concluded, initiates with their families and friends walked out of Memorial Auditorium to Tanner Fountain for a festive evening reception featuring sparkling cider, cakes and strawberries dipped in warm chocolate.

"It's awesome to be part of this club," said Ali Zaidi, a human biology major who wants to go to medical school. He was talking to his fellow initiate Rajan Kulkarni, a chemistry and history major who received a Firestone Medal this year. "These are not bookworms, these are people out having fun," Zaidi said. "This is not some nerd club. It's an honor to be associated with it." SR