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Being a Drum Major for Justice

We will begin this semester celebrating the life and legacy of one of history's greatest models of service to humanity, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His great sermon on "The Drum Major Instinct" draws compelling and bracing links between our health--both personal and societal--and our ability to govern and direct our very human cravings for personal success and recognition toward a higher purpose.

Dr. King deploys the metaphor of the drum major to illuminate a very human drive that we each can easily recognize in ourselves. The impulse to get out in front and lead the parade is high-octane fuel that propels us to strive for greatness and high achievements in this academic environment.

However, Dr. King warned us of the harm that comes when the drum major instinct slips its moral moorings, when we're so impressed, seduced, or enslaved by the trappings of our success that we grow blind to the needs or anguish of others.

We're all better off, Dr. King taught us, when each of us goes the extra mile--mentoring an underprivileged youngster, reaching out to an isolated elderly neighbor, volunteering at a food shelter, or just helping a colleague get through a personal crisis.

Dr. King himself said he wanted to be remembered not for his Nobel Peace Prize or all the other accolades that came his way, but rather for his commitment to serve others.

I believe that top honors, rankings, prizes, and championships are important. They are the markers, rewards, and happy outcomes of dedicated pursuits of excellence.

I also believe that these many honors are enriched by Penn's continuing mission to link all of our enterprises to the broader context and needs of society.

Penn is strong in large part because we truly strive to practice what we teach. We've worked with our neighbors to make West Philadelphia a great community in which to live, work, and raise a family. We've worked with our community to improve public education, and now we have a new public school whose students reflect the neighborhood's energy and diversity. We try to do justice to the complexities of issues by facilitating full, free, and open discussions. And our students see community service not as an elective, but rather as a critical path to moral citizenship.

Being a drum major for justice also involves doing justice to one another. We can argue a fine point. We can challenge one another to improve on one's performance. But let's not forget that we are all part of the same community that has the potential to accomplish even greater things for humankind.

If we can make a belated New Year's resolution, let's try to follow our individual drum major instincts judiciously, while also honoring our mission to serve others and pursue justice.

That's a resolution worth keeping. Happy New Year!

Judith Rodin

  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 17, January 14, 2003