"I am deeply honored to be here for the bicentennial of the Philolexian Society, and to convey the congratulations of Columbia College and of the University overall to its distinguished members. And as I look around the room today, 'distinguished' seems to me very much the appropriate word.
"Now, as an Englishman educated — at least what passes for education — in a society with traditions going back to ancient times, I take every opportunity that I can to remind anyone who will listen that traditions are an indispensable, institutional, and social resource — a vital means of enabling the best of the past to guide us, but not govern us, as we all pull together to find out what will be best for the future. Indeed, my own recollections are of growing up in the far north of England, where I was surrounded by ruined castles, ancient monuments, distant battlefields, and persistent folk festivals such as jousting, sword dancing, harvest festivals, and all kinds of pageantry, some of it sober and some of it less sober.
"The trick always, of course, to knowing when you're dealing with traditions and preserving the best of traditions, is to learn how to play with the rules, and not just by them. And it seems to me that in simply being replicated, traditions do of course tend simply to die. But it's in their renewal that they have life, and it's in their renewal that they enrich our lives. So a society that goes back 200 years has really enjoyed the efforts, the energies, the creativity of generations of people before you, and I think we probably feel amongst us this evening the ghosts of the past who have done this — sat here on similar occasions, making similar remarks, probably better than mine, but anyway...
"So it's sincerely the tradition of the Philolexian Society, I think, from what I've gathered this evening, that you've combined, in appropriate degrees, a variety of values. I'm afraid I'm going to use some 'F' words this evening, so bear with me. [Aside: A silence descends upon the room...! -TJV]
"That you have combined, in appropriate degrees, a variety of values, not the least of which are, I think, Frivolity — that's one down! — and Fervor, with your love on the one hand of croquet and Fine wine, and your love on the other of diverse forms of discourse and convention. In both cases, it seems to me, the society captures some enduring values, both of youth over the years and of the university over the years. Indeed, you help students, I think, to emerge from the university in ways that are continuous with Columbia's great tradition of trying to produce students who are intellectual and social explorers, and not mere experts. And you keep alive the next 'F' word, the Feistiness — and here I deliberately use a slightly archaic term — the feistiness that characterizes Columbia, its students, its faculty, and its alumni at their best.
"When I first thought of taking up the position of dean, I was temporarily sobered by the thought of serving in that role for nearly 4000 young Columbians who showed no signs of conformity of any kind. In fact, it was evident at the beginning that strong views, strongly expressed, formed the basis for social bonding, and that everybody you would see loved the next argument even more than they loved the last one. And that people, as we all know, rarely agree on anything, unless of course they're not really interested in it.
"So one of my standing remarks on the subject is that when you get to be dean of Columbia College, you have to deal with the truth of what one of the former deans once told me — that there are three rules you have to deal with if you are to succeed at Columbia College. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.
"However, I've really rather learned to love the students who stop by my office to seek my advice, spend 30 seconds on that, and then wait for another half hour as they realize what was wrong with it. That feistiness amongst you is fostered in so many ways at Columbia, but probably in no way — I'm sure in no way — as longstanding as that provided by the Philolexian Society. Congratulations again on your first 200 years of the society, and I look forward to meeting you all in this room at the same time 200 years from now."