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  • “Give It Your Best Shot!”Address to Columbia College Students Elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society
  • Karl Kroeber

The address, which Kroeber delivered on May 18, 2009, and retirement interview were originally published in English Department Updates (Fall 2009), a semiannual alumni newsletter of the Columbia University Department of English & Comparative Literature.

Although Kroeber did not want a memorial service after his death, he asked that this address and “An Interview with Karl Kroeber” be published in a pamphlet for distribution. Jean Taylor Kroeber, his wife, and their children combined these with a short biography in “Karl Kroeber 24 November 1926–8 November 2009,” distributed at his commemorative service, April 8, 2012, in St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University.

I begin by apologizing to the parents of today’s honorees, because some things I say may distress you. If it helps, I am a parent of three children, so I understand the financial sacrifices you have undergone for the past four years. I am also aware that these splendid young adults, whose accomplishments we celebrate, you knew just a few years ago as adolescents—and adolescence has been described as extended familial suffering for no discernible reason. Finally, as a teacher I have one overriding commitment: to speak only the truth as I see it to your children—and I think you deserve the same respect.

To you splendid students I say: bravely done! You richly deserve the honor bestowed on you today. You have achieved more than success—you have met the highest standards of intellectual accomplishment of one of the world’s most distinguished universities. You today join in a larger fellowship with women and men of many universities and colleges bound together solely by merit of four years of [End Page 76] outstanding intellectual performance that required more than the gift of intelligence—including the courage often to resist the seductive temptation of not doing your very best. You remind us that in any serious work of the mind only excellence is adequate.

When Cathy Popkin invited me to give this talk, she suggested I say something about my work that might interest you—which I interpreted as a challenge: just try to make that stuff interesting! Well, I have two kinds of work, interlocking, yet distinct: teaching and scholarship. As to the latter, I’ve published a raft of books and a lot of essays over the years—none of which, except for some about Native Americans, would I suggest you read. They are all out of date. Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed going into new fields, and as soon as I get the lay of the land, I start looking for other unmapped territories. A less heroic way to put this might be to say I’m like a cuckoo bird—I lay my eggs in other birds’ nests and let them do the hard work of hatching and rearing.

My first book was on narrative at a time when no critic thought storytelling worth talking about, although now everybody babbles narrative theory. Later in the 1960s—long before there were laptops—with a big government grant I investigated the possible effect of the computer on literary analysis. My conclusion, borrowed from the programmers, made nobody happy but remains, I believe, fundamentally sound: garbage in, garbage out. In the 1970s and 80s, besides my interest in Native American literatures, I focused on parallels and differences between visual and verbal art. This carried me into analyses of representations of the natural world. Apparently I was the first to talk about artistic landscapes in terms of ecology. It certainly is ecology and biology that brought me to my principal research of the past decade and a half—the relation of artistic imagining to neuroscience, investigations into how the brain operates, the physical basis of imagining. This is why I’m especially pleased to speak to you smart people: some of you are humanists and some are scientists—but nobody just by looking can tell which is which.

The explosion of knowledge created by the life sciences of the past fifty years, climaxing the nineteenth-century discovery of evolution, the practical and ethical significance of which...


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pp. 76-83
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