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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Phi Beta Kappa speakers celebrate a life of the mind

Discovering the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., documenting the shenanigans of the pharmaceutical industry and exploring the significance of obelisks were intellectual journeys shared by three of Stanford's 308 Phi Beta Kappa members during a June 15 induction ceremony in Memorial Auditorium.

"The most redeeming and worthwhile intellectual adventures always come when you admit to yourself how little you know and you take the plunge into some subject or field of study where you're completely clueless," said Michael Mongan, a senior political science major who will work in Washington next year on the Senate finance committee. "That's what happened my sophomore year when I went to work at the Martin Luther King Papers Project here on campus." The project is publishing a 14-volume edition of speeches, letters and other papers from King's life.

Mongan listened to a King speech from the late 1960s that described how wrenching an issue the Vietnam War had been for King, who believed the war was wrong but faced tremendous pressure to keep that belief to himself. National leaders who had supported the civil rights agenda argued that it would be a betrayal for King to oppose their foreign policy. Civil rights leaders argued that opposing a distant war would detract from social progress at home.

Mongan said King's words from that speech serve as guideposts: "There are some issues where cowardice asks, is it safe? And expedience asks, is it politic? And vanity asks, is it popular? But conscience always asks, is it right?"

"By taking the plunge into working at the King Papers Project and having the opportunity to hear that voice from a quarter century away, I learned for the first time what leadership really is," Mongan said. "I think that's probably one of the most important lessons that I learned here at Stanford."

"Obeliskologist." That's what friends call Matthew Tsang, a senior in biological sciences and classics who wrote an award-winning paper on Egyptian-style monuments in Rome, Paris and London. "As a scientist, I see how quickly statements we take as fact are disproved, revised and rewritten," Tsang said. "Obelisks, by contrast, were built to last, and the skill learned from careful study of them will never be outdated." Tsang will go to Oxford next year to complete a master's degree in archeology before entering medical school.

Shira Lipton, a senior in human biology who plans to pursue a career in medicine, personified the rewards of scholarship. "My minor in Spanish and experiences as a volunteer at local community health clinics serving indigent patients showed me a 'disconnect' between what underserved patients need to know about their health and health care and what in fact they are learning from health professionals and the media," she said.

Lipton studied nearly 400 direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements for prescription drugs broadcast by TV stations in English and Spanish. The drug industry spends billions on such ads, arguing that they serve an educational mission. "If DTC ads serve an educational mission, then the delivered content and educational value of the ads should not differ on mainstream versus Spanish-language television stations," Lipton hypothesized.

She found that 99 percent of the ads were aired on mainstream stations; only 1 percent were aired on Spanish-language stations. Most ads were of limited educational value.

While the student speakers at the ceremony shared what they'd learned from applied research, Neil J. Smelser, who directs the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on campus, devoted his keynote speech to the virtues of what he called "useless" knowledge. He argued that the idea of the cultivated undergraduate possessor of a rich mix of useful and useless knowledge has eroded in a culture that worships the useful and neglects the useless. He challenged students to recognize that all knowledge is potentially valuable, beautiful or useful.

"As you move along in life, do not consign the rubbish of your undergraduate learning to the dustbin of the past," he said. "Retain it, and let your curiosity and imagination continue to lead you to be open to all new knowledge useful and useless however remote it may be from your chosen life path."

Focusing on useful tasks can narrow life experience, Smelser said. "In its intrinsic meaning 'university' is derived from 'universal,' which means in turn the search for knowledge and love of learning in every description valuable because it is knowledge, essential for cultivated persons and a cultured society. We are losing that meaning of the university. We have even gone beyond [educator] Clark Kerr's 'multiversity.' We have entered the era of the useful university."

How can initiates fight utilitarianism? "Strive to be poets forever seeking out new meanings of everything," Smelser advised.

Also during the ceremony, student John Hanna surprised Robert Gregg, the Teresa Hihn Moore Professor in Religious Studies, with the honor society's 2001 Teaching Award. "He deals with students as if he has no other time commitments," praised Hanna.

"Anyone who does not enjoy the process of teaching students at Stanford is lacking in imagination," said Gregg, who had been attending the initiation to support his students.

Phi Beta Kappa is the nation's oldest academic honor society. This year, 151 seniors and 29 juniors were elected to membership at Stanford; additionally, 28 members of the Class of 2001 were elected as juniors. Members must have taken three courses each in the humanities; science, engineering and mathematics; and the social sciences. Only one-tenth of a graduating class may be selected.


By Dawn Levy

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