Speech given by Michael A. Covington (Phi Beta Kappa, Georgia, 1977) at the initiation ceremony of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society, University of Georgia, April 27, 2001:

 

My fellow Phi Beta Kappa members, friends. colleagues, and guests:

 

We are gathered here today for three reasons.

The first reason is to carry on academic traditions. It is therefore appropriate that we are meeting in one of the oldest buildings of the nationís oldest state university. We are part of an academic culture that traces its ancestry through the great European universities to the medieval Arabs and then the ancient Greeks, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.

And in this connection I want to quote an observation made by the noted writer George F. Will. I do this with some trepidation, knowing that Mr. Willís writings may be considered heretical in this place because one of his favorite topics is the superiority of baseball over football.

Nonetheless, I think that on this particular point, Mr. Willís doctrine is sound. Mr. Will observes, and I quote, "The worldís great universities have a long pedigree. Harvard is descended from Cambridge which is descended from Oxford which is descended from Paris. Yale, it may be said, is descended directly from Oxford. I think this means that Yale is Harvardís aunt."

To this we can add that The University of Georgia is descended directly from Yale, the alma mater of its first president. This implies that Georgia and Harvard are first cousins.

It also implies that the three universities at which I studied, Georgia, Cambridge, and Yale, are respectively my alma mater, my alma materís great-aunt, and my alma grandmother.

 

The second reason we are here is to carry on the traditions of our almost 225-year-old society, Phi Beta Kappa. Its name is of course ancient Greek, the language of Plato and Aristotle, and stands for Philosophia biou kybernetes, the love of wisdom, the helmsman or pilot or guide of life. The motto contains no verb, so you are free to supply "is" or "shall be" or even "ought to have been" according to your taste.

When I was at Cambridge, I made this mistake of wearing my Phi Beta Kappa key to a reception one day. I quickly found out that over there, they don't know what these things are. One of my friends looked at it just a moment, saw the three Greek letters, thought for a moment, and said cautiously, "Those things are mostly just drinking societies, arenít they?"

The fact is that Phi Beta Kappa is the original Greek-letter society, and all those other societies you see on Lumpkin Street and Milledge Avenue are mere pale imitations. We delight not in revelry Ė at least, not here, not right now Ė but instead in the virtues of the intellect. And I might add that being a member of Phi Beta Kappa is much less expensive than most of the others.

Speaking of Greek, when I was at Yale we devised the proper name for induction ceremonies such as this one. Remember that in Greek, apotheosis means "transformation into a god." Well, this is obviously an apophibetakapposis. In the words of the late Professor James W. Alexander, "See how easy Greek is!"

 

We are also here for a third reason Ė to hear an edifying discourse on some subject of interest to scholars young and old. So here goes.

My theme today is that a broad education is the best preparation for the future, because the future is unpredictable. As you know, in my present job I work with computer technology as new as tomorrowís sunrise, but in modeling the nature of human thought and language, I rely on philosophers as old as Plato and Aristotle. So I think I probably cover as much time-depth, at least from the human perspective, as anyone at the University. (Except perhaps Ed Larson. He covers everything from evolution to the Internet.)

And over the years Iíve read numerous predictions about the future. What Iíve come to see over the years is that predictions are almost always wrong. When people predict the future, all they are really doing is predicting the present. They assume that the trends of the moment will continue ad infinitum. Either that, or if they are pessimistic, they predict that in spite of its apparent success so far, civilization is about to collapse. Neither kind of prediction comes true.

What I want to do now is something Aristotle would approve of. I want to classify some events, or predicted events, into four categories, depending on whether or not they were predicted and also whether or not they really happened. Imagine a square layout with four items in two rows and two columns. What the rows and columns signify will become apparent.

 

Category 1 is for things that were predicted and then really happened. Yes, there are things in this category, but most of them have unexpected twists.

Consider for example the flight to the moon. The basic idea dates from thirty or forty years before the actual event, and there was serious wishing and speculation for half a century before that. So it is impressive, but it was not at all surprising, that we managed to land men on the moon in 1969. We had known how for thirty years already.

The unexpected twist is that just four years later, we stopped landing men on the moon. Flights to the moon are part of prehistory for todayís young adults Ė they happened before you were born. Although we have a reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, space flight has not become a part of peopleís lives, and there is little immediate evidence that it is ever going to. So much for the "Space Age."

The other big event of the sixties and seventies was the so-called Sexual Revolution. This, too, was predicted, advocated, and trumpeted for several decades before it happened. And unlike space flight, it had a direct impact on ordinary peopleís lives.

I suppose it can be said that I was a conscientious objector in that particular revolution, and that brings me to the unexpected twist. The "free love" movement did not succeed in killing off marriage or even chastity. It did not bring widespread happiness.

If you interview people today you will find that, for many of them, the Sexual Revolution was not the path to happiness, it was an obstacle in the way of it. People have since realized that if you train yourself to have physical thrills without intimacy, intimacy without love, love without commitment, and commitment without accountability to society, you are not gaining freedom, you are just making yourself less of a human being.

The cautious generations that came of age after the Seventies are trying to find their way back to traditional wisdom without re-adopting traditional faults. I wish them well. Philosophia biou kybernetes Ė let the love of wisdom be the guide of life.

 

On to Category 2, things that were predicted but never happened. These are numerous. At one time people thought weíd all have helicopters in our garages. After all, it was the next step beyond the automobile, and there was never going to be a shortage of gasoline, was there?

How about Picturephone, the video telephone announced by the Bell System around 1964? Admittedly, video telephony has a limited role in teleconferencing and as part of some peopleís computer hobby, but most people simply donít want it. The communicative function of my voice is not enhanced by letting you see how I look before I shave.

On a more somber note, how about global nuclear war? I donít want to say that there is no hazard, but the risk of World War III has diminished steadily over the past forty years. It was predicted, but it didnít happen.

In retrospect, itís amusing how people of my generation were hypnotized by what C. S. Lewis called "inability to disbelieve the advertisements." Nuclear war was supposed to be inevitable just because people said so.

When civilization faces serious challenges, it is easier to predict doom than to face the challenges that actually lie ahead. Nuclear war was mid-20th-century secular eschatology. It was their end-of-the-world story. After it came predictions of an ecological catastrophe that also didnít happen.

I donít want to disparage the importance of conserving our environment, but my point is that people wanted to believe in the imminent end of the world, and when it didnít end one way they substituted another.

After the end of the world failed to occur, a new generation of young people Ė dubbed "Generation X," though I prefer to call them the Cautious Generation Ė came of age with the realization that civilization is not going away, and weíre not getting out of the job of running it.

 

Category 3 comprises things that happened without being predicted. This is by far the most interesting category since it includes almost all major inventions, as well as numerous social and political movements.

Who could have predicted the American Revolution, the invention of printing, the telegraph, or the telephone? All of these sprang up unexpectedly and changed the world quickly. In retrospect, we can see the trends that led to them, but these trends were not recognized at the time.

Or consider personal computers. Granted, many of us in the sixties, when I was a schoolboy, predicted that we would one day have computers in our homes. But what would we use them for? Computing, presumably Ė that is, a lot of mathematics and maybe some accounting and recordkeeping. Even word processing was not foreseen.

Nobody predicted that the PC would replace the television set as the main form of electronic entertainment Ė still less, that in so doing, it would wrest control of our culture away from Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Many of us thirty years ago foresaw a national computer network, but we expected that it would all be controlled from a gigantic computer at its central site. We never foresaw the Internet, which Ė as I am at pains to explain to nonspecialists Ė has no headquarters; instead, computers automatically find communication paths to each other, and if a computer goes down, all the other computers still work.

The result? Our centrally controlled mass media are now the underdogs; Hollywood and Madison Avenue no longer tell us how to think; anybody can publish anything, and those who want to read it can find it; and the Internet is the most powerful force for diversity, freedom, and democracy since the invention of printing. Its effects are still to be reckoned.

But thatís not all. When we were predicting home computers, how many of us foresaw embedded microcontrollers?

Perhaps you donít know what an embedded microcontroller is. But each of you almost certainly owns several dozen of them. They are the tiny computers built into thermostats, clocks, car engines, and all kinds of machinery. Today, a Nikon F4 camera contains four tiny computers in a local-area network. Every time a spark plug fires in your car engine, itís because a computer told it to. Thatís why todayís cars are easier to start on cold mornings, and much less finicky about gasoline.

Weíre in the middle of a technological revolution on many fronts, and technology shouldnít be left to engineers. (If youíve ever tried to program a VCR, you may well have seen what happens when engineers are allowed to design things by themselves.) Technology needs the human touch.

Itís sometimes fashionable for educated people to brag of their disdain for technology. I think thatís rather like being an aristocrat who wants all the work to be done by the servant class. Intelligent people need technology, and technology needs the wisdom of the wisest human beings. Philosophia biou kybernetes.

 

Last I come to Category 4, things that were not predicted and did not happen. Those are things I canít enumerate Ė itís rather like trying to make a list of all the things that donít exist. All I can do is follow the advice of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said, "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." So I shall now be silent.

[Gives Phi Beta Kappa sealed-lips sign.]

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