Kevin Convey, assistant professor and chair of journalism in the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, returned to his alma mater to usher in a new generation of Phi Beta Kappa members there.
On April 10, Convey gave the keynote talk at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony at Colby College — where he himself had been inducted into the Society 39 years before in 1977.
The talk was called, “ΦBK and Me: 37 Ways Phi Beta Kappa Can Change Your Life.” In it Convey described the crucial impact Phi Beta Kappa and the liberal arts have had on his life — and can have on any life. The full text of his talk is provided below.
Convey became a member of Phi Beta Kappa at Colby College in 1977.
Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony
Colby College, April 10, 2016
“ΦBK and Me:
37 Ways Phi Beta Kappa Can Change Your Life”
Keynote Talk by Kevin Convey
(ΦBK, Colby College, 1977)
Assistant Professor and Chair of Journalism
President Greene, Provost Kletzer, Professor Rice, this year’s Phi Beta Kappa inductees, other members, and welcome guests:
I am honored to be asked to share this great evening with you and very happy to be back at Colby, a place at which, quite unbeknownst to me at the time, the seed of much of what I am today was planted.
It is a place that evokes fond memories, some still vivid after almost 40 years.
Yes. The reek of cheap steak frying in the Dana dining hall on Saturday afternoons, the red carpet of discarded go-cups all but obscuring the emerald lawn of frat row on a sunny Sunday morning, the aroma of stale beer triggering a sodden memory of last night’s keg party like some bent Proustian memory experienced through a pounding hangover.
Yes, it all comes back to me now, as Firesign Theater once put it, like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist.
But please bear in mind that I am a member of the ‘70s generation, so you must forgive me: much of the rest of it, I just don’t remember.
I was asked by Professor Rice to talk with you about a few things tonight, including the importance of an education in the liberal arts and sciences, the role Phi Beta Kappa has played in my life, and a discussion of the intersection of journalism and academe as seen from my vantage point here in the breakdown lane. All in about 30 minutes.
In other words, as Bette Davis’ Margo Channing says in the classic All About Eve — “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
In fact, my reaction to Professor Rice’s very kind invitation to speak was strikingly similar to my reaction around this time of year 39 years ago when I received a letter inviting me to join Phi Beta Kappa:
“Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”
In the present case, the brief flush of imposter syndrome was soon supplanted by a warm rush of pleasure in being asked to perform such a lofty and important task. That, however, was quickly replaced by a sharp pang of fear stemming from the fact that I was being invited to speak intelligently to about 80 to 100 of the smartest people on a campus full of smart people.
This, I told myself as a single drop of cold sweat trickled down my spine, had better be good.
As you know, among the many attributes imparted by an education in the liberal arts and sciences is the ability to learn about anything. So of course, I next did what any good liberal arts grad in my place would do:
I Googled “how to give an effective Phi Beta Kappa talk.”
Hmmm. Among the first entries was a reference to Emerson’s storied 1837 address to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a speech that was so seismic in its call for a new, American approach to scholarship that it came to be known as “America’s intellectual declaration of independence” and moved Phi Beta Kappa to adopt its title, “The American Scholar,” as the name of its magazine, and to name its highest book award after Emerson himself.
Oh, God. How on earth was I ever going to measure up to the Sage of Concord?
The next entry was a text of a speech by Leroy S. Rouner, professor of philosophy at Boston University, who, in adressing Phi Beta Kappa’s 39th Triennial Council in Philadelphia in 2000, celebrated what he called the “glorious uselessness” of Phi Beta Kappa and, by extension, the liberal arts education.
I read with mounting excitement. Professor Rouner was saying everything I wanted to say about both topics. The only problem was… he had already said it — and far more elegantly, eruditely and wittily than I could ever manage.
And then there was an entry about Phi Beta Kappa member Daniel Webster, who writing about a speech he was to deliver to his chapter at Dartmouth in 1806, reported that it contained “a good sound abuse of the profs — which it may be prudent to omit…”
My panic intensified. I was beginning to feel as I did that dark day in October when, after cutting a number of my human sexuality and genetics classes, I showed up to find the professor handing out blue books for the midterm. Talk about a bad dream come true.
This wasn’t getting me anywhere fast. So I decided to lower my sights. I Googled “how to give an effective talk,” and left Phi Beta Kappa out of it.
And there it was, in citation after citation, the number-one piece of advice for giving an effective talk:
Warm the audience up with a joke.
Right. Of course. A joke. But what kind of joke? This was a sophisticated audience, after all. A knock-knock joke wasn’t exactly going to light up the room.
How about something sophisticated like this?
Why did the liberal arts grad cross the road?
To get to the unemployment office.
Dumb joke, I know.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the fundamental lie at the heart of that dumb joke — a lie that society at large and today’s parents and students in particular seem only too happy to believe — was the very thing I wanted — no, needed — to talk with you about tonight.
But before I do that, first things first. Congratulations are, of course, in order. You are joining an old and storied fraternity of learners and learned whose membership rolls include such names as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eli Whitney and Susan Sontag, John Quincy Adams and Gloria Steinem, Theodore Roosevelt and Angela Davis, Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice. You join 17 U.S. presidents, 38 U.S. Supreme Court justices, and 136 Nobel laureates as members of Phi Beta Kappa.
Like them, you have had to sacrifice to get here — and I’m not just talking about the tuition bills you or your parents have had to pay. I mean the things you gave up while you were here to devote to your studies — the weekends at home, trips with the outing club, those long rides in the beautiful country surrounding the campus, lazy Sunday afternoons, the full-night sleeps, the final eight beers at the keg party.
And now it’s all paid off in this: an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa, a long speech by some guy you’ve never heard of and a weird gold key to toss in your sock drawer with the class ring and never wear again.
But I want you to think of that key in a different way.
You know, the key is shaped the way it is because it was originally designed to wind the pocket watch that every gentleman once carried. Both watch and key would be attached to a chain fob that would be worn across the vest every day. The key, in other words, was not only a signifier, but a tool.
Few of us have need any longer of a pocket watch key, to say nothing of a pocket watch or even a wristwatch in this age of the smartphone. So it’s tempting to reduce the key to a signifier of Phi Beta Kappa membership only.
But I want you to continue to think of that Phi Beta Kappa key, and the liberal-arts education it represents, as a tool. A Swiss army knife of the intellect, if you will, one whose engraved letters reminds us that philosophia biou kybernētēs — “Love of learning is the helmsman of life.”
Abraham Lincoln once said that if he had to fell a tree in six hours he’d spend four of them sharpening the axe. The same is true of your intellectual Swiss army knife. It needs to be kept sharp to work for you, and I’m going to tell you how I’ve honed mine.
But first, back to that bad joke about the liberal arts grad in the unemployment office.
We can all agree I know about the virtues of an education in the liberal arts and sciences in teaching us how to learn about things we love, in introducing us to the joy of purely intellectual pursuits, the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone, and the delight to be found in the mastery of any subject.
We can all agree I know that the attributes of the education that all of us have been lucky enough to have been given by our parents or to have acquired on our own — boundless curiosity about the world at large and the ability to read and think critically, communicate effectively and make our way successfully in an increasingly complex and diverse society — make us happier individuals, better people, and superior citizens both of our own country, and of the world.
And nearly everyone who has ever given this kind of talk, it seems, has extolled what Professor Rouner by extension called the “glorious uselessness” of a liberal arts education — the idea that the thing has a high intrinsic value of its own quite apart from any worth it may or may not have in the workplace or in your coming career. And we can all agree on that, too, I think.
Yet, unequal as I am to the heights of Professor Rouner’s eloquence, I am going to plot a somewhat contrary course tonight. Realizing that most of us will spend more than one-third of our lives on the job — more than we will ever spend, sadly, in contemplation of truth and beauty — pace Keats — I am going to speak with you about the cold, hard career value of a liberal arts education through the prism of my own experience as a journalist, as a hirer, and as a late-vocation educator.
I hope this will not seem solipsistic or, heaven forefend, narcissistic. It’s just that I think my story is a testimony to the incredible power of a liberal arts education and the habit of lifelong learning, and not that unusual a one at that. Plus, it happens to be the story I know best.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to become either a journalist or a teacher — little did I know that in time, I would become both. At the age of 10, I printed a neighborhood newsletter on a toy press I got for Christmas, and in high school I was thrilled by my classes in English and toiled on my high school newspaper.
I was attracted to Colby by its liberal arts program, its woods and its rural isolation. At the time it seemed like a great place to study without distraction — ha, ha. I promptly chose the then-new classics-English joint major and set off on my merry way.
Then, as now, Colby offered neither a degree nor a class in journalism, but I made up for that by working on the Echo — I was just a weekly grunt covering whatever the news gods provided and the editors assigned. Later I augmented my work for the Echo by setting up internships at the late, lamented weekly Maine Times and the Bangor Daily News during two Jan Plans.
I remember wrestling with my vocation pretty sweatily during my sophomore year, and then waking up one morning after a late but exhilarating night at the Echo’s then-Runnals union office and realizing with a rush that journalism was it for me.
Why? Well, I think the same elements that attracted me to the liberal arts — a curiosity about the world, a desire to ask questions and get to the bottom of things, a bent toward critical thinking, a thirst for wisdom, a drive to bring change — caused me to embrace journalism as my profession.
Truthfully, the motivation wasn’t entirely noble. My father — beatae memoriae as the Romans say, of blessed memory — was a tough guy who leaned on me pretty hard sometimes as a kid. From that grew a desire to question authority, call the powerful to account, subvert the dominant paradigm and go my own way. Another reason to say thanks, Dad. What’s more, Woodward and Bernstein had just brought down Nixon — journalists were rock stars, and I wanted in.
Little did I know what our status would be 40 years later.
In the months before my graduation, I researched over 100 papers in New England I wanted to work for, and sent out a letter to each. I got exactly five replies in all, and a single offer of an interview — from the Times Record down the road from here in Brunswick. I prepared for that interview as my soon-to-be ended formal liberal arts education had trained me to do — doing what I would do every time I changed jobs for the rest of my career — I cut my hair, bought a new suit and researched the living hell out of the paper, the people who worked for it, the issues in town, the paper’s positions, the demographics — vacuuming up every possible scrap, and formulating as many questions and observations as possible.
It turned out to my great good fortune that the editor, James P. Brown, was a former New York Times man who wanted to hire a liberal arts grad — and my preparation was the perfect audition. He believed it easier to hire a broadly educated person who could think than a journalism grad who could write but knew little else.
This is an idea I will return to later, but suffice it to say that the beleaguered city editor to whom it fell to teach me the arts of journalistic writing and reporting did not share his boss’ ideals. He wanted someone who could perform journalistically from day one, plug and play. And so every day he sat me down after deadline and kicked my ass, fine-tooth-combing the stories I had filed that day until I wasn’t sure whose hair would fall out first — mine or his. In the end, I learned more in a year with Scott Gibson than I ever would have at any journalism school in the country.
But true to the spirit of the liberal-arts-educated, I wasn’t relying only on Scott to teach me. I was alone after all in a 35-dollar-a-week apartment over a plumber’s office hard by the railroad tracks. I had little to do and nothing but time, as they say, so I went back to school, giving myself the education in journalism I lacked: reading the Times, the Journal, the Globe and the Press Herald every day after work; poring over Time, Newsweek, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal; and devouring every book about journalists and journalism I could lay my hands on: books by Hunter Thompson and Tim Crouse, Edwin Newman and Dan Rather, Barbara Walters and Jacob Riis, Westbrook Pegler and Nora Ephron, Nellie Bly and Lincoln Steffens, along with many dry textbooks whose names are now lost to time.
By the time, I left Maine for New Bedford after two and a half years, I could not only write journalistically thanks in large measure to Scott, but I was pretty well educated in journalism at large as well — thanks in large measure to Colby and that intellectual Swiss army knife. Without the education that the key symbolizes — I doubt have could have achieved that.
And this became something of a hallmark — I used the key to both do my job and to prepare for the next one. When I was made an investigative reporter in New Bedford, I read Seymour Hirsch, Jack Anderson and Barlett and Steele, and tried to dope out how they did what they did. When I finally got the call to go to Boston to work at the Boston Herald — a development I was then sure would be the pinnacle of my career — the only job the paper had to offer me was that of business reporter.
Do you think you can do it, they asked me? You all know the answer as well as I did at the time. I took six weeks off in between jobs, read Fortune and Forbes and Business Week and Barrons and the Journal; Samuelson’s Economics – An Introductory Analysis, Lynch’s One Up On Wall Street and Boone and Kurtz’s Contemporary Business. By the time I walked into the Herald’s newsroom, I could at least punch my weight in the paper’s business department.
Colby and the key served me well. A series of battlefield promotions at the Herald made me, at 26, the youngest city editor in Boston newspaper history. Trust me when I tell you this is a distinction that loses considerable luster by the time one hits 60, but nevertheless. And that is when I began to hire people, and to truly see the wisdom of the world’s Jim Browns who favored liberal arts grads over j-school types when it came to jobs in journalism.
Now, some of my best friends, as the saying goes, are j-school types. I now teach in a university’s school of communications — albeit one with a hearty slate of distribution requirements designed accomplish at least some of what a liberal arts education does —so please don’t quote me on this. But I quickly found that while j-school grads were easier to work with at first, having a better grasp of the formal aspects of the trade, liberal-arts types inevitably caught up quickly, and surpassed their colleagues from the start in terms of breadth and depth of knowledge, adaptability, problem solving and communication.
Plus, and this is not to be underestimated in a business where close quarters and 12-hour days are the norm — they were just plain more interesting than their more vocationally minded colleagues. They did things in their spare time like keep parrots, or work to perfect their pain de campagne recipe, or rebuild classic Corvettes. They were bright and funny and their interests were broad — and that showed in the kind of reporting and story ideas they brought to the desk. Finally, I understood first-hand what Jim Brown was after when he hired me. It wasn’t just an ideal — he was after better journalism and a better paper and — as a proud Quaker, a better world — and believed that the liberal arts and sciences could help provide all three.
Next my career took me to Boston magazine where I studied the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese to learn the art of narrative, and then back to the Herald where I steadily climbed the editing ranks until, after a foray into community journalism at the Herald-owned community newspaper company, I finally made managing editor and then editor in chief. This, I thought at the time, would surely be my high water mark.
It was here that I began to educate myself in the areas of management, organization, leadership and motivation in order to try to make the Herald a better product and its employees a happier staff. I don’t need to tell you how I went about that. In time this area of business would become a consuming interest — another part of a topic I had first taught myself about 25 years earlier.
As editor in chief of the Herald, I had the world on a string, as the great Harold Arlen would have it. I loved the challenge of motivating the staff, I loved the freedom I had and the creativity I could express in putting page one together, I loved the idea that in some small way, I was informing, entertaining or educating 750,000 readers every day. That kind of reach is rare in life.
And then one day, I got a call that snipped the string my world was on: when the voice on the phone said, “This is Mort Zuckerman of the Daily News in New York.” I thought it a typical newsroom prank and nearly said, “Yeah right, and I’m Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.” Fortunately I was able to stifle myself. It was Zuckerman, and he was shopping for an editor and had seen had a piece about me and the Herald in the Washington Post the day before. Was I interested?
Was I interested? Was I interested in going to New York? Was I interested in running the most storied tabloid in the country, if not the world? Was I interested in trying out my skills on the biggest possible stage? Those of you who are from Boston know a little about our inferiority complex relative to the Big Town. Dare I mention the Yankees or the Giants? Why, even George Frazier, the legendary Boston Globe columnist, used to say, “Boston may be great, but New York—New York is the varsity.”
Yes, I was interested. I was ready to play for the varsity.
By now I don’t need to tell you how I prepared. By the time I arrived at the paper’s offices at 39th Street and 9th, I knew as much or more about the paper, it’s history and its role in New York than many who had been working there for years. I had studied every book ever written about the Daily News, and I had read everything that had been written in the press about the paper and its owner for the prior 10 years.
Unfortunately for my New York hopes and despite a long courtship — Mort and I couldn’t make the marriage work. We had very different ideas about what the Daily News should be. And since he was the boss — he, of course, had the last word.
Eighteen months into my big New York adventure, I was out on the street.
It was a personal low point for me, a devastating blow I was ill prepared to handle.
Yet, once again, the key, that intellectual Swiss army knife, came to my rescue.
You see, the desire to teach that was overtaken by my decision to be a journalist on that morning during my sophomore year at Colby had never really died —it had merely taken a long nap. Down through the years I had expressed it in training young reporters as I had once been trained, in serving as mentor to new managers on the desk, in the odd talk before a civic group or in a friend’s classroom.
Slowly, with the help of my wife and friends, I came to see that what had first appeared to be the cruelest cut of my life was actually a great gift in disguise, a break in the flow of an otherwise successful career that would allow me, in the best liberal arts tradition, to learn to do something new, something I had once longed to do — and, it turns out, long longed to do.
But first — as usual — there was work to do. The first thing I learned was that despite my 35 years in the news business, I was unlikely to be taken seriously or employed full time in the academy without a least a master’s degree — and so I would need to go back to school — becoming at 58 years old the eldest member by far of the class of 2013 of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
I could write a book about my experiences as an ink-stained, slightly-the-worse-for-wear Rodney Dangerfield at CUNY, and perhaps someday I will. For now, suffice it to say that rather treating grad school as a way to get my academic ticket punched, I took my two years at CUNY as an opportunity not just to polish my old skills and to develop some new ones, but to begin to learn how to teach by observing some of the best teachers in the business while taking my first tentative steps as a pro in classrooms at NYU and City College. I also used the time to begin work on a book on newsroom leadership and management in the digital age — an attempt to pass on some of what I’ve learned during my 30 years as a news executive.
After a sometimes nerve-wracking seven-month job search, I landed my current position as assistant professor and chair of Quinnipiac University’s journalism department. By now I don’t have to tell you what did I during the time between my hiring and the start of the school year. Or, for that matter, what I am still doing.
Those of you who have tended the groves of academe longer than I can imagine that the difference between the newsroom and the classroom was, to paraphrase Twain, like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The learning curve was steep, the cultural differences stark and the adjustment difficult and still incomplete. But once again, my liberal arts education held me in good stead — it enabled me to reinvent myself. That key helped unlock a new door when the old door slammed in my face.
Still, once I got to Quinnipiac, it was striking — given all that the liberal arts and sciences had done for me throughout my career and all I had seen it do for others along the way — to see up close how little regard parents these days seemed to have for the mode of study.
“Philosophy?” One hard-charging dad snorted as if I had handed him a rotting eel when I suggested that potential major for his knowledge-thirsty son. “What the hell kinda job is he going to get with a degree in philosophy?”
I calmly mentioned Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal; Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP and former presidential candidate; activist investor Carl Icahn and former FDIC chair Sheila Blair — proud philosophy majors— and now proudly rich — every one. Dad looked at me through slitted eyes. Clearly he remained unconvinced by my smarty-pants college-professor jiu-jitsu.
Given the reaction, I didn’t bother to mention that the top attributes employers say they want from college graduates — skills in leadership, written and verbal communication, problem solving, the ability to work on a team, a strong work ethic, participation in extracurricular activities and good grades — are precisely those the liberal arts inculcate.
But what’s even sadder than such parental attitudes is how many incoming students themselves — who by rights should be taking the broadest possible view of their studies, who should be excited by the infinite possibilities college offers and ready to experiment with different disciplines — now arrive with firm plans in mind that are inevitably tied to a job that may or not exist by the time they graduate. And unlike you and I, they will not possess the key that will enable them to reinvent themselves when things change, as they almost certainly will.
I’ve heard it said that such attitudes are to be expected from parents and students who have lived through the Great Recession and the so-called jobless recovery. And I can understand that. But there’s one problem with that line of argument: my father lived through the Great Depression — a time when even a jobless recovery would have been welcome — and, somehow — though he was only the second member of his family to go to college and considered it a must for his children — he didn’t view it vocationally at all. He looked at it as a kind of social and intellectual finishing school, where you learned letters, manners and that indefinable yet essential quality he called class.
Now, my father was a hard-nosed, pragmatic guy who got his degree in business administration after six years of night school at Northeastern while working full-time and raising a family with my mother, so I doubt he would have had the patience for the abstruse and highly philosophical arguments surrounding the importance of a liberal arts education.
But he got one thing right down to his very bones: he knew it was the key to a better life.
In this he was unknowingly in tune with the five William and Mary students who held the first Phi Beta Kappa meeting in the Apollo room of the old Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 5, 1776. They didn’t come together because they wanted to get higher-paying jobs so they could afford better powdered wigs or silver buckles for their shoes or even because they happened to enjoy learning things, such as how to mix a mean Stone Fence cocktail in the manner of Ethan Allan. They believed the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom would make them better, more virtuous people, which is to say better Christians. The idea was that liberal education promoted character formation.
You’ll notice I haven’t spent any time on this end of the argument, choosing instead to confront the enemies of a liberal arts education where they live, on the battlefield of utility and vocation. It may be so, but I am unsuited by temperament or belief to tell you very much about whether translating Latin or reading Tristram Shandy or parsing Yeats can make you a person of higher moral or religious character.
But I can tell you without a doubt that if my experience is any guide, Phi Beta Kappa and the education it represents can give you a better life — and now I’m not talking about doing your job, or preparing for the next one, or climbing the ladder or cashing checks. I’m talking about the kinds of things that can give you joy, that can transport you, really, in the half of your life in which you are not working.
Here’s just one example:
During senior year I took a yearlong course in American popular music and jazz with the distinguished retired music Professor Paul Machlin. My advisor could barely stifle an eye roll when I told him I wanted to take it, and my friends snickered about my decision to waste time on such an obvious gut course. I thought that taking this kind of course was part of what a liberal arts education was supposed to be about. Anyway, I will not protest too much about the course’s rigor. Suffice it to say Professor Machlin was demanding in the way that the best college professors are, and quick to disabuse the slackers who signed up for an easy ride.
But more important than that, he taught the course with such enthusiasm, such utter joy in the material, that it kindled a fire in me that has yet to go out. I don’t translate much Latin these days, but I do listen to jazz with deep pleasure almost every day. I haven’t written a term paper since I left Colby, but I’ve written thousands of album reviews and music features on the side in the years since I graduated — bringing to bear the critical listening, thinking and writing skills I learned from Professor Machlin — and, by extension, Colby — and not a single one of them felt like work.
Similarly, I barely acquired any Greek at all at Colby, but I have read nearly every new translation of the Iliad that has appeared since I graduated, feeling each time that excitement in discovering a fresh take on the old epic that animated Keats when he wrote in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”:
then felt I like some watcher of the skies
when a new planet swims into his ken
And that same sense of discovery has accompanied a succession of other interests that have occupied me during my off hours through the years — cooking, skydiving, bicycle repair, baking, art history, piano refinishing, poetry, building tube hi-fi equipment — each one an exercise in what the late Colby President Robert Strider called “serendipity,” as well as in the pure joy of learning made possible by that Swiss army knife of the intellect and the never-ending education that it represents.
So as I leave you this evening, I want to commend you once again on your achievement and the sacrifice it took to attain it. I want to welcome you to the club — we few, we happy few. I want to remind you just how lucky you are to have acquired the kind of education we celebrate tonight — and how much you owe to all of those — teachers, advisors, parents, friends — on whose shoulders you stand. I want to remind you that your education is not coming to end, but is instead just beginning. And just as the great bluesman Blind Willie Johnson advised his listeners to keep their lamps trimmed and burning, so I want to advise you to keep that key polished, that knife oiled and sharp.