by Stanley Chodorow
We start your academic year with a convocatio, literally a calling together, and an event with a Latin name deserves a bit a seriousness. The convocation of last year was my first, and I talked to the freshmen then about what the faculty would expect of them. I can sum up that message with the statement, "The standards will rise like a rocket, for very soon you will be judged by the standards that all adults must face--the best that can be done in any field." Now, that was a serious message.
Tonight, I want to talk about a different aspect of the life of the university. I want to say something about Civil Discourse.
If you have been paying attention to the news and to the world around you, then you've experienced a world resounding with nasty arguments. The political arena is in transition from a long period of Democratic domination, and the change has produced a fractious and fractured environment. Partisanship has risen to the service of every debate. Bi-partisanship is a tired joke; when you hear the word, you know that one side is bashing the other side for partisanship. The electorate appears to be disgusted with the character and improbability of the discussion of national issues, as party loyalty and competition rather than substance determines the course of every debate.
What happens in and around Congress and the state legislatures reflects an ugly mood of argumentativeness in the society as a whole. Everyone is talking about talk shows--not the Oprahs and Geraldos who are engaged in a battle of the side shows (bearded ladies and two-headed cows are not far off in that arena)--but the dozens of political talkfests aired on TV and radio across the country. You've probably heard of Philadelphia sports fans. If you haven't, try listening to sports talk radio sometime for a dose of the most amazingly harsh, care-nothing-for-the-truth-or-good-effort criticism of every team, coach, and player connected with Philly. Well, the majority of political talk shows, on radio and TV both, reside at the same level of uninformed, nasty razzing.
Certainly, this low-brow noise has been around since politicking began. We've found evidence of similar sound-offs in the remains of ancient Athens. In every election year in recent memory, when commentators have lamented the dirty, low quality of political discourse, someone has countered with a story of the kind of unwashed linen waved about in elections of a hundred years ago. But in Athens the forum for such uncivil discourse was limited to the street corner, the graffito, and the pottery shard and in early American elections the pamphlet, song, and broadsheet served the purpose. All of these are relatively unamplified means of communication. What is new today are the means, not the character or quality of discourse, and the new means make a difference in the quality of our lives.
Radio is old, by your young standard, but it is only recently that its full potential as a medium of political discourse has begun to be realized. TV's phenomenal growth to a hundred stations and more has provided an effective and expansive forum to groups that were excluded from the medium not long ago, in the era when the big three networks controlled the air, and brought us Ozzie and Harriet and the Honeymooners. And the power of the Internet as a medium of political and other sorts of discourse is growing exponentially. Every special interest will soon have its home page. The growth is so fast, that in the three days since I wrote these words it may be that every special interest already has its home page.
The Battered Isle
From its beginning in the twelfth century, the university has been an island battered by the storms of uninformed and uncivil discourse. I am a medieval historian and work mostly on the period when the university as an institution was founded. In its first years, the Church tried to control the free discussion of ideas in the university, and the guild of teaching masters struggled for freedom--sometimes with eloquent arguments about the benefits of free inquiry and sometimes with the age-old ploy of ignoring authority. I'm sure you've all tried both methods in dealing with your parents and other authority figures you've had to deal with--the arts are old and universally practiced.
The environment of common discourse, of nasty partisanship and competition for power and position, has always been the sea in which the university sat. Today, that environment is particularly stormy. Human ingenuity, which has brought us modern transportation and communications, household devices of every sort, and pollution that threatens the fabric of our world, has also produced a storm of ideas and opinions much more dangerous than any that has washed over the university in the past. In the late twelfth century, an angry pope might write a letter to the University of Paris ordering them to quit saying that there was a truth attainable by reason alone. In the late twentieth century, we get bombarded--literally and figuratively--by those who do not like what they hear about what goes on in our laboratories, libraries, and classrooms. Of course, these critics and haranguers do not actually know or understand what goes on here, but that never stopped anyone from knowing that the eggheads are up to something that will undermine the American way of life or that violates the principles of true morality.
All of us who have made the university our workplace live out there where you are coming from. We all go back and forth from the mainland to the island every day. We all come to the university with the mud of the streets on our shoes and hands. And the mud affects us and our institution. You will find partisanship and incivility here. Much as we wish the university to be a place apart, a house of civil discourse, it lives in the ambit of everyday society and everyday politics, and we ourselves cannot escape from the habits of everyday life. So, you will find partisanship and uncivil discourse here.
But you will also find a struggle against incivility, against uninformed opinion, against the notion that every idea is equally valid. For the fundamental values of the university are that truth is not a party position, that every idea is only as good as the evidence that supports it, and that free and open inquiry carried on in a community that respects each of its members sufficiently to hear them out and consider their ideas seriously is the only environment in which knowledge can be created and prepared for use in the world.
This does not mean that the university is a quiet place of contemplation. The making of knowledge is a contentious business. You will not believe how we argue over ideas and what we claim to know. The sharp arguments over Byron's doings that you've just read about in Tom Stoppard's play, Arcadia, are a good representation of what goes on every day in the university. And the argument about what is important and what trivial is a constant part of our noisy debates. The point is that the university is a place of criticism. Every idea and statement is tested by someone; you will quickly learn that it is best to become your own best critic, lest some lesser person take on the job for you.
But one of the most important characteristics of the university is that it constantly holds its ideals up before its members. We are always aware--we make one another aware--that our discussions of ideas should be civil, and what we mean by civil is that we respect one another sufficiently to take seriously what each of us says in the course of a debate and that our objective is to judge the idea, not the person who utters it.
Yet, it won't always seem as if people here respect you and your thoughts. You are at the beginning of the course that leads to civil discourse, but you will have to grow into it.
Membership in the Making
As students, your first experiences here will be as the objects of someone's judgment. Everyone will hold you up, turn you around, shake his or her head up and down or side to side, and stamp a grade on your forehead. You'll get five or so grades stamped on you each term. You will not feel like an equal member of the community, but you will be members in the making. The university's work requires a long period of honing of skills and accumulation of knowledge. Every one of you is capable of becoming an active participant in that work--and we want every one of you to participate--but you'll have to work your way up through the levels of intellectual craft. By the time you are juniors, you should begin to feel yourselves to be young members of our community.
So, as you start your life at Penn you do not have all of the skills and knowledge you need to be full members of the university's workforce, but you do have the potential and the right to join us in the making and using of knowledge. You also have the right and duty to uphold and protect the fundamental values of the university. You have the right to stand up for freedom of inquiry and for the civil discourse that it represents. And we hope that you will take the experience you gain in the struggle for the ideals of civil discourse here at Penn into the world when you graduate to positions of leadership in the society that sustains the university and gives it its purpose.
Instead of isolating our doctoral programs in a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences wholly separate from our professional school faculties, Penn developed the "graduate group" concept that brings together faculty from many schools and departments to direct doctoral study in an area of common research.
All of this has direct bearing on how you approach your graduate and professional studies: Yes, the focus of your attention should be on the content and faculty of your specific program. Yes, establishing productive relationships with a few faculty mentors in your program is probably the most important single hallmark of the successful graduate student. But no, it is not enough.
At least, it is not enough here at Penn.
Here at Penn, you can take advantage of the wonderful complexity of relationships and synergies that bind the faculty and their research together across all the traditional boundaries of discipline, department, school, and profession.
Here at Penn, you can look for the unexpected connection to subjects or faculty far removed from your own.
Here at Penn, you can approach your graduate education as though you were surfing on the World Wide Web: headed for a specific objective, but following up "hot links" to unexpected resources on "home pages" far removed from where you began.
If you take advantage of the unique opportunity you have chosen, if you do both things--build strong relationships with your faculty mentors and use them as an anchor point for a wide-ranging exploration of this great University and the international academic and professional community it represents, then you will be truly successful in your graduate education.
-- From President Rodin's Address
What we do in our undergraduate programs right now is excellent and has produced both an excellent education for our students, and a class that goes forth into the world and does extremely well. But the world is changing, and what has been good for the world that we've passed by, is not going to be good for the world of the future--so we are trying to change as well. You will hear about this in the coming years and be in a position to participate. You've already had the experience of being undergraduates, you know a great deal about it...and we hope that you will join us as opportunity arises in helping us to shape the undergraduate experience for the Penn student of the 21st century--not only if you are in a graduate program that leads to teaching, but also in those which lead to the practicing professions, because you can help us give the undergraduates an opportunity to play in your particular part of the ballpark.
The other thing that's happening is directly relevant to you, to your programs and to your experience as professionals in the future. We will be building programs that take advantage of a world that's held together not only by air, sea and land travel, but by wires. You will see the increasing use of electronic sources of information and electronic methods of instruction. More important, you will see the beginnings of a network-based professional community that is centered on the best schools of every profession and that provides a basis for a continuing community of professionals throughout your careers. Penn's graduate and professional schools will be at the forefront of those extended communities of professionals and will provide you with a base, a home base, or a home page, throughout your careers. You are a class that will become charter members of those communities. We welcome you to those communities.
-- From Provost Chodorow's Address
President Judith Rodin
Provost Stanley Chodorow
Dean Susan Fuhrman, Graduate Education
Dean Raymond Fonseca, Dental Medicine
Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson, The Annenberg School
Dean Norma Lang, Nursing
Dean Ira Schwartz, Social Work
Dean Rosemary Stevens, Arts & Sciences
Dean William Kelley, Medicine
Dean Alan Kelly, Veterinary Medicine
Dean Malcolm Campbell, Fine Arts (interim)
Dean Gregory Farrington, Engineering
Dean Stephen Burbank, Law (acting; Dean Colin Diver is on leave)
Dean Thomas Gerrity, The Wharton School