Address to Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society

May 18, 2018
William A. Cohen
Associate Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Studies
University of Maryland

Thank you. It is an honor to address the Phi Beta Kappa inductees for 2018. Congratulations on the academic achievements that have resulted in this recognition. As students and scholars who have excelled in a wide range of liberal arts subjects, you have shown yourselves to be academic leaders. Current members of Phi Beta Kappa warmly commend you on your accomplishments and welcome you to this learned community.

When I reflect back on my own Phi Beta Kappa induction, now a long time ago, I am struck by certain connections with the present. I was elected to PBK when graduating from college in 1985. Like today, that was a period of uncertainty and of deep division in this country. It was a time of frightening international conflicts, especially with the Soviet Union, and an era in which the federal government caused grave worry to many students and faculty on American campuses concerned with issues such as South African apartheid and the AIDS pandemic. Although the conflicts and worries of today are different from those of the 1980s, they are no less urgent and unsettling.

While the future beyond your time in college holds much to be concerned about, there are also many reasons for hope. Not least among them is the expectation that you will be graduating into a strong economy and a strong labor market. These conditions offer college graduates a distinct advantage over those who start their post-college careers in times of economic downturn or retrenchment.

However that labor market takes shape, and however your careers may evolve in relation to it, you already have a distinct set of attainments in the liberal arts. It is particularly notable to have chosen this path in an age when, I would hazard to guess, you have been hearing since grade school that a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math is what talented young people should strive for. Many of you have indeed pursued a STEM degree, as it is known, even while meeting the rigorous liberal arts requirements for Phi Beta Kappa recognition, and I salute you for achieving excellence in a broad range of areas.

In higher education, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the supposed decline of the liberal arts in the face of an emphasis on technical degrees. For those who value the liberal arts, students like you are a bulwark against that decline. Recently, a story in the New York Times caught my eye. It was a small feature that the newspaper runs every day that cites articles published on that date from some point in the past. On this particular day, the story lamented the decline of university enrollments in the liberal arts and humanities in favor of science and technical fields. Whenever this crisis comes up, it is usually depicted as a recent phenomenon, but this story had been published in 1952. Imagine that, 1952! That was a period of great expansion in higher education in the United States, as soldiers returning from Korea and veterans of the Second World War used the benefits of the GI Bill to pursue a college degree. I looked up that story from 1952. It explains that the turn to science and engineering resulted from the demands of the so-called atomic age—a euphemism for the Cold War buildup of nuclear arms and nuclear energy in the race against the Soviet Union. As it happens, that story appeared exactly 33 years before my college graduation, which was 33 years before today. We still seem to be in conflict with the Russians, and we still seem to be hoping that the liberal arts continue as a vibrant force in the defense of democratic values.

So what advantages does the liberal arts education that you have completed confer as you enter into the complex and contested world of today? Certainly it gives you a range and a breadth of knowledge and experience, an ability to think creatively and to solve problems from a variety of culturally informed orientations. In my view, this education has, above all, trained you in one essential skill, the skill to adopt the point of view of someone who may be very unlike yourself. Call it relatability, in the idiom of today, or sympathy, or empathy. I believe this skill will serve you across the many different careers you are likely to have in your lifetime.

Because I am by training a scholar and teacher of literary history, I want to use the few minutes I have to draw on a literary example to say something more about the value of cultivating empathy. My own teaching and research has mainly been in nineteenth-century British literary culture. The best example for what I am discussing in that period is the writer George Eliot. George Eliot is the pseudonym used by a woman who had been born as Mary Ann Evans. She used the name to publish novels and criticism in the middle of the Victorian period. The most learned and brilliant woman of her time, George Eliot wrote a book, Middlemarch, in 1871, that is still regarded by many readers as the most complete and powerful novel in English. Her writing combines incredible erudition and seriousness with humor and insight into human psychology as well as social commentary. Across all of her writing, Eliot proposes that the greatest human weakness is egoism, an inability to see beyond one’s own particular needs and circumstances. She considers the greatest human accomplishment to be what she calls sympathy, or the ability to adopt the point of view of another. Read one way, Middlemarch is an experiment dedicated to proving this point. In this lengthy novel, with its scores of characters, Eliot sets in play the forces of egoism and sympathy. She demonstrates that a claim to sympathy does not correlate with any particular identity category—such as one’s gender, one’s religion or politics, or one’s place on the spectrum of social and economic classes. She introduces us to characters who are self-involved and to those who demonstrate empathy, who are found among the rich and the poor, the pious and the godless, liberals and conservatives, men and women.

While Eliot’s novels, through their plots and characterization, represent the importance of getting outside oneself, they do something more as well: they give the reader an actual experience of identifying with others through the imaginative inhabitation of the lives led by fictional people. Because the plots are engaging, the characters are memorable, and the writing is beautiful, Eliot’s novels provide their readers with a lived experience of sympathetic identification, which she regards as the supreme capacity and accomplishment of a work of art. Even before she started to write fiction, Eliot envisioned its mind-expanding magic. In an article from 1856, she stated: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. . . . Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” And in a letter from a few years later, she said: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. . . . The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.” In Middlemarch, for example, Eliot creates some amusingly awful characters, such as the unattractive, egomaniacal scholar named Reverend Casaubon. She invites us to laugh at this withered man’s pedantry and self-importance, and to be horrified at the ways in which he subjugates his vital, enthusiastic young wife. But then she goes further and brings us into his own vivid consciousness, showing us how the world looks to him, what it feels like to be him. Eliot challenges her reader to sympathize not only with attractive young people—which is easy—but with mean, selfish, difficult people, who are incapable of extending such sympathy themselves.

It may be interesting to know a little bit about how George Eliot arrived at such insights in her own life. As a young person, Mary Ann Evans became immersed in enlightenment philosophy from Germany (of which she became an eminent translator), and she eventually rejected the evangelical Christian faith in which she had been raised. She became an editor and writer for important London journals, and eventually fell in love with a colleague, the natural scientist and critic George Henry Lewes, who was himself unhappily married. Under the strict marriage laws of the time, he could not obtain a divorce from his wife, but Lewes and George Eliot lived together for many years and she referred to herself as Mrs. Lewes, in defiance of the restrictive conventions of the day. The scandalous decision to live together without marrying was costly in social terms. Eliot was not received in certain circles and she was rejected by her own family—both for her unconventional behavior and for her repudiation of evangelicalism in favor of a credo more like secular humanism. The work that she did as a writer, however, won her widespread acclaim, as well as the considerable means to support not only herself and her common-law husband, but his former wife and children, as well as the family this former wife had begun with another man, and several other dependents.

This distinctive and very un-stereotypically Victorian story says something about why Eliot might have put a premium on encouraging people to “enlarge [their] sympathies” and look past restrictive conventions to “the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.” She had personally experienced the pain and difficulty of not enjoying sympathy from narrow-minded people. In this connection, I will relate to you that, visiting London a few weeks ago during spring break, I took a stroll past George Eliot’s house. If you have visited London, you know that the homes of famous people are commemorated with circular blue plaques. Searching for Eliot’s plaque in the prosperous Chelsea neighborhood overlooking the Thames River, I was startled to discover her massive house entirely obscured by scaffolding. I learned that the billionaire entrepreneur and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, purchased the house a couple of years ago and is having some improvements made. Now Eliot, as I mentioned, teaches us that even the rich and powerful are capable and deserving of sympathy—and so, far be it from me to draw a lesson about the relationship between art and commerce from Mr. Bloomberg’s purchase of her home. We must just hope that he will preserve the legacy of this extraordinary thinker and make that blue plaque once again available to her admirers.

It will go without saying that I encourage all of you to read Middlemarch in the copious spare time that awaits you after graduation. But even if you don’t, I think you Phi Beta Kappans already know a lot about empathy, not just as an ethical precept but from many dimensions of the education you have had. When you worked in a team to solve a problem imaginatively and collaboratively, you developed the capacity for thinking with and through other people. If you have been exposed to Design Thinking, or even to virtual reality, you will have had an experience of empathy too. Eliot used the technology available to her—the medium of the novel—to give her readers the thrill of traveling across time and space to know what it is like to inhabit the mind and soul of someone else, even in times and places unimaginably distant from one’s own. The immersive experience of reading is not just an amusement or a distraction, but a practice that actively engages and enlarges our imaginations by stretching them—a yoga for the mind, if you will. We do this not only in the arts and humanities but in the social and natural sciences as well, in our efforts to understand, model, and predict patterns of behavior, to figure out how things work in our world and how they might work differently if we changed some of the variables. As supremely well-rounded students of the liberal arts, you already know how to see these questions from many points of view. So as you leave behind this university and go your various ways, I invite you to exercise that sympathetic capacity, whether it puts you in a nanotechnology lab, a painting studio, a hedge fund manager’s office, or a disarmament negotiation with the Russians. You have the future in your hands and I wish you well with it.