The Bright Cast of Thought
Good afternoon, Faculty, Students, parents, members of the University, the Laredo, and the South Texas community. Today we open a promising new era in the life of Texas A&M International University as we meet to form our own chapter of Phi Kappa Phi and to induct our first members. Founded in 1897, Phi Kappa Phi recognizes, honors, and encourages superior scholarship in all academic disciplines. By recognizing and honoring scholars, Phi Kappa Phi stimulates academic excellence throughout all fields of study.
In our life together as a learning community, “scholar” is surely one of our most essential yet elusive terms. Both within and without the University scholars today often emerge somehow detached from life, living in a tower of ivory muddle. In their words and in their lack of action, modern scholars often resemble Hamlet, “Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Can we perhaps re-imagine the scholar in brighter hues? What does it mean to be a scholar? What are the characteristics of a scholar? Is it just someone who is very, very smart? What does a scholar do? What privileges should a scholar expect? What responsibilities should he or she accept? Finally, does being a scholar make one a part of a particular profession, or might a scholar be found in any walk of life?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his celebrated address “The American Scholar,” has left us his answers to these fascinating questions, and I commend that essay to you for careful reading and rereading. To explain his term, Emerson begins by describing the three influences which educate and form a scholar: nature, books, action. By nature, Emerson means the endless, circular flow of life. “Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men [and women] whom this spectacle most engages.... Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find,—so entire, so boundless.”
By books, Emerson means the influence of the Past. For the scholar, books guide, stimulate, inspire. The scholar aggressively engages a book, relating its words to his or her own spirit, looking forward, creating new life and new insights as he or she reads. “One must be an inventor to read well,” Emerson insists. “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” He cautions us lest the “guide” become “tyrant.” Books can easily mislead us if we use them passively, Emerson warns, “as the love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue.” Emerson will not allow a book to “pin me down,” to be “warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.” Through the right use of books we become thinkers and therefore creators and inventors in the great human story. To read is a cooperative effort, a discussion between reader and author, separated only in time. “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it is their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” Out of a study of the past captured and transmitted in books, the scholar seeks, creates, and articulates truth.
Action forms the third influence, the third component of a scholar’s education. For Emerson, without action the scholar’s thought can “never ripen into truth.” Thought is inseparable from action. “The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other.” Living the truth, doing it, is a total act; to think it is a partial one. Emily Dickinson once wrote that Shakespeare was her “lexicon.” For Emerson, “life is our dictionary.” Cervantes’ message in his immortal Don Quijote, sculpted over a door in the foyer of our Student Center, comports well with Emerson: “Cada uno es hijo de sus obras.” Each is the child of his or her acts.
Emerson plants the scholar in the midst of a life unstable, shifting, dynamic. A scholar sees his or her own being mirrored in the endless cycles of death and renewal in nature; a scholar is inspired by his or her creative engagement of books; a scholar is emboldened to act. Scholarship thus conceived is not for the comfort-seeking or the faint-hearted. If we accept Emerson’s portrait of the scholar, and if we follow the implications of his description, all of us here today will recognize the mystery of our place in the natural order; we will search the past, present in books, to create a new order here, in Laredo; and we will expend our energies turning thoughts into action.
How could this awesome surge of creative energy, Emerson’s scholar, have somehow been confused with the often halting, ineffective behavior of contemporary academic life? Scholars think clearly and act decisively. They draw their thoughts from life and turn them into significant acts. Emerson quite clearly saw that his own time was much “infected with Hamlet’s unhappiness,” and he called scholars to a different bent.
Today, we begin this chapter of Phi Kappa Phi at Texas A&M International University pledging ourselves to the vision and the possibilities of scholarship described by Mr. Emerson. Texas A&M International University came into being to change Laredo and to change South Texas. Today our chapter of Phi Kappa Phi joins that vision of change, to bring forth a better place to live, to work, to think, and to act.
Ray M. Keck, III