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A Journey Toward Wisdom by Judith Rodin    

Below, and on the following pages, are the Convocation addresses given by the President and Provost on College Green, last Wednesday evening, September 4, 2002.

Welcome to members of the class of 2006 and to our new students who have transferred from other universities.

Youave made it through new student orientation without losing your bearings.

Youave made it through Things Fall Apart without falling apart.

Youave even enjoyed your first Dining Services meal.

Now that youave made it this far, I am very happy to welcome you to the University of Pennsylvania and address you as fully fledged members of our community of scholars.

What a wonderful occasion this is! Convocation is my favorite ceremony at Penn, and not just because College Green and College Hall glow so beautifully at night. I love Convocation because you glow so beautifully with enough exuberance and determination to light up the whole campus.

Convocation is also rich in symbolism. We gather together at dusk to mark the transition between the old part of your life and the new.

You are no longer a prospective student or someone elseas responsibility. The sun has set on that stage of your life.

Now, as more distant suns appear in the eastern sky, you are beginning the journey of discovery that will change you and the way you see the world in ways no one can possibly predict. You could fall under the spell of an author who inspires you to become a writer. You could catch the bug to pursue a political career or go on an archaeological dig. You could fall in love with your future life partner.

Maybe you all even--dare I say it? --stoop to recognize Princeton teams as worthy competitors. On second thought, maybe not.

One thing is certain: When it comes to a profession or career or life plans, there is no sure thing.

Three years ago, startups looked like the ticket to fast wealth to anyone with the guts and drive to start or join one. Indeed, dot.coms were such a sure thing that some of our students saw no need to stick around Penn to receive their degrees. There were fast millions to make, and no time to waste.

Today, the gold rush seems like ancient history, and most of the students who bolted Penn prematurely wound up returning to campus with a renewed appreciation for the value of a degree.

Likewise, many of us--young and not-so-young--didnat envision that the rising tide of economic prosperity and job growth could possibly recede--forcing us to rethink our career and retirement plans.

And I am sure none of us anticipated the events of September 11, which, to paraphrase Yeats, drowned our ceremony of innocence.

Our illusions of safety and invulnerability were gone, our disengagement from world affairs exposed and tallied.

In one sense, we cannot be faulted for seeing in the collapse of the Twin Towers, in the demise of Enron and Worldcom, or in bloody conflicts that have no end in sight, signs that things are falling apart all over the world, that, as Yeats wrote in his poem "The Second Coming," which is quoted in the prologue to Chinua Achebeas novel, "The center cannot hold."

We canat deny all that is wrong with the world. But neither can we conclude that all is wrong with the world. Every day we see role models of excellence, goodness and courage who bring joy, beauty, justice, and comfort to their fellow human beings.

And if the world is moving in the wrong direction, then you have the obligation to help turn things around. We admitted you to Penn because we believe each of you has the potential to help put humanity back on course.

Yes, we look to you to add to the body of knowledge in your fields of study during your time at Penn.

Yes, we expect you to acquire the skills, knowledge, and prowess to excel and make important contributions in your careers and professions.

And yes, I have no doubt that each of you will go far on whatever professional track you choose to follow.

But we didnat bring you to Penn only to become accomplished artists, brilliant writers, preeminent scholars, savvy politicians, expert engineers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, or scientists.

We brought you here because we are also counting on you to pursue Benjamin Franklinas founding mandate to focus on theory and practice, to gain knowledge for its own sake and to use your knowledge to thrive professionally while serving humanity.

Franklin viewed education holistically. He understood that an education rich in theory but short on practice would deprive graduates of the means to make a good living as well as the tools to apply their ideals to good purpose. But Franklin also understood that a specialized education sealed off from arts and sciences would weaken the capacity of graduates to lead a good life that benefits others.

One could describe Franklinas visionary integration of theory and practice as a wisdom track. In a world awash in information yet parched for wisdom, where better to pursue the wisdom track than right here at the University he founded?

Of all the trips youall take, none will be longer, stranger, or more rewarding than your steep, upward journey toward wisdom.

While most, if not all, of you will earn a degree in four years, you can only advance toward wisdom in small degrees over the course of a lifetime.

You might be wondering when you will reach wisdomas gate. If you think youave already made it, chances are you still have a long way to go. But if you are thinking deeply and critically and acting accordingly, itas safe to say you are definitely on track.

There is no simple answer to the question, "What is wisdom?" Brilliant thinkers, artists, and theologians have wrestled with this question for thousands of years.

Iam rather captivated by this description offered by the late philosopher Robert Nozick. He wrote, "wisdom is not simply knowing how to steer oneas way through life and cope with difficulties. It is also knowing the deepest story, being able to see and appreciate the deepest significance of whatever occurs; this includes appreciating the ramifications of each thing or event for the various dimensions of reality, knowing and understanding not merely the proximate goods but the ultimate ones, and seeing the world in this light."

Now, I would suggest that time and again, the failure to know the deepest story or appreciate the ramifications of oneas choices has led to calamity, tragic misunderstandings, and sometimes bloodshed.

Did those corporate executives who looted their companies stop to think about the domino-like harm they would bring to employees, shareholders, and the general public? Are Israelis and Palestinians any longer trying to understand each otheras story? On the deepest path to wisdom, we must open our minds to many different perspectives.

It is all too tempting to associate only with others who share your background, political philosophy, musical tastes, and major--or to hear, read, and see speakers, books, and programs that only echo your views.

At Penn, you will have the precious opportunity to live with and learn from extraordinary men and women from every conceivable background. Open your minds, and you will open each otheras eyes.

Take advantage of your time at Penn to engage with your classmates across the boundaries of school and discipline.

If youare not a Penn Engineering student, visit the Weiss Technology Hub and youall appreciate how much the dramatic advances in technology are reshaping the way we learn, work, and live.

Get to know the women and men in the Nursing School who are studying to join the largest health care profession in the world. As Suzanne Gordon eloquently writes, nurses "weave a tapestry of care, knowledge, and trust that is critical to patientsa survival."

Over the next four years, all of you will take courses and meet classmates from the College. Use those encounters not only to tap into the accumulated wisdom of world civilization, as it is embedded in the liberal arts, but also to understand the deeper stories behind the people whose lives will be touched by your work.

And if you are not a member of that academic tribe known as Wharton, recognize that these women and men must cure todayas corporate ills, work out the kinks in the global economy, and put your retirement accounts in better shape than mine.

Everyone at every school at Penn has one thing in common. Each of you is terrific and has something special to offer. You are entering a community of scholars that likes to mix it up. Our extraordinary faculty, our dedicated staff, and other students will look to you to challenge them to keep them on their own wisdom paths.

The stakes could not be higher. We are undergoing rapid changes in technology, in health care, in world affairs, and in our increasingly unstable global economy. How all of us think and act over the next four years could help determine whether we come together to make our communities and our world freer, safer, and healthier, or whether we allow things to fall apart.

You are now a part of our vital center.

Let me conclude with a brief historical anecdote about our founder: As you know, the Constitutional Convention was held in this city, and an elderly Benjamin Franklin lent his own wisdom and calming presence to the proceedings.

As the convention was closing, James Madison recorded that Franklin, while gazing at a painting of a sun on the back of the president's chair, remarked that painters often had trouble distinguishing between a rising and setting sun.

Franklin said "I have often in the course of this session, and the vicissitudes of my own hopes and fears as to its outcome, looked at that [rendering of the sun] ... without being able to tell whether the sun was rising or setting.

"But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is indeed a rising sun."

Members of the Class of 2006 and other new students, I have the confidence to know that gathered before me is a constellation of rising stars. I have no doubt that years from now, you will take your place in the firmament of illustrious Penn alumni who include:

  • nine signers of the Declaration of Independence;

  • eight signers of the Constitution;

  •  three Supreme Court justices;

  • eleven Nobel Prize laureates;

  • more than seventy Olympic medallists;

  • and thousands upon thousands of distinguished leaders and scholars throughout the world.

As you chart and follow your own unique path to all you hope to be and achieve, may this great University help to guide you toward wisdom in the years ahead.

Welcome to Penn.  


Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 3, September 10, 2002


September 10, 2002
Volume 49 Number 3

A Major General in the U.S. Marines has been named as Penn's EVP.
Civic House--the community service hub--has a new Faculty Advisor.
9/11 Remembrance
Senate Agenda
At the Convocation last Wednesday, the President and Provost welcomed the new students to campus with words of wisdom.
PennERA--Electronic Research Administration--is intended to streamline processes related to sponsored research.
PennKey, a new authentication system is coming to campus to improve network security and protect privacy online.
Remember last academic year? The Models of Excellence program seeks nominees whose notable achievements went above and beyond the job expectations.