September 11, 2007, Volume 54, No. 3
Below are the remarks given by Provost Ronald J. Daniels to the Class of 2011 on September 4, 2007.
Embrace the Journey
by Ron Daniels
Members of the Class of 2011: I’m delighted to join President Gutmann in welcoming you to the University of Pennsylvania.
Technically, Convocation marks an entrance: into the University’s academic community and into that mythical experience of “college” and “the next four years” of your life.
In reality, what you’re entering is a series of conversations. They will unfold, formally and informally, expectedly and unexpectedly, over the course of your time at Penn.
Some of these conversations will transpire in the predictable places: lecture halls, seminar rooms, and labs, and will involve one-on-one discussions with your professors and TAs. Others will occur, more furtively, in the back rows of these same rooms, and will clearly not involve our faculty. And some will arise quite serendipitously, over a meal at Hill College House, in the mouth-watering food truck lines, or late at night on a Quadrangle bench.
Wherever they take place, I am betting that some of these conversations will unsettle you, will topple your sense of the world, and the things you know to be true. Good. This is the point of the Penn conversation: to discover a deeper, truer sense of the world and your place in it—even at the risk of upending received wisdom.
Indeed, now that I have made it to my junior year as Provost, I can confess that, on more than one occasion, the demands of the Penn conversation have resulted in what can only be described as an acute case of brain ache.
Take, for example, the conversation that I had a few weeks ago with Sanjeev Khanna, a professor of computer and information science who is also a Guggenheim Fellow. Over lunch, he told me about a puzzle he finds fascinating.
The problem seems beguilingly simple. A traveling salesman plans to visit a set of 100 cities. He knows the distance between each pair, and he wants to find the shortest possible tour that will take him through the entire set.
But, as Professor Khanna explained, it turns out that there are no efficient algorithms for solving this problem exactly. The best we know of take exponential time—that is, millions of years—to work out. Even more disquieting, technological innovation is unlikely to furnish an answer. This, he assured me, is true. Given that I still can’t get the flashing twelve o’clock off my DVD player, I didn’t feel I was in a position to dispute him.
So what to do? Interestingly, if our salesman is willing to settle for a tour that is about 10% longer than the shortest possible tour, he can find the answer within minutes.
As it turns out, the shortest possible route is not always the best. Sometimes you have to take a few extra laps, a few deviations from a course you might have perceived as set. Learning is a demanding business, and it requires patience and flexibility to master.
Class of 2011: Penn is your intellectual journey. From your selection of a major, to your particular course load, to the research and service projects you undertake, the tour is yours to chart.
As President Gutmann has reminded you, you don’t have a million years at your disposal. You have just four. And trust me on this one: they will fly by.
But I urge you to resist the temptation to fly with them. You have to give yourselves the freedom to wander if you’re going to make the most of your time.
At Penn, you will begin to think as adults, unfathomable as that may sound. Among other things, this means learning when perfection is possible, and when a longer route might yield a better result.
The knowledge you acquire here will be vital. It is an important reason you came to Penn in the first place. But equally vital is the journey you’ll take to acquire it.
Embrace the journey, and do so with integrity. Refuse shortcuts that might cheat yourself and others.
Take advantage of Penn’s resources and its magnificent diversity. Sign up for that legendarily demanding poetry course, even if economics is your thing. Explore the holdings of our world-class libraries and museums. Create art and music and community partnerships with your friends.
Above all, don’t be afraid to push yourselves. Sometimes, as Professor Khanna has learned, that extra 10% makes all the difference.
I have no doubt that each of you will flourish at Penn. But to really earn your education, you have to accept the journey—the exhilarating unknown. You have talk to each other and work together. You have to experiment and play. You have to surrender yourself in some way to the awesome breadth of human knowledge, which is larger than all of us, but also ours to seize.
Class of 2011: This moment, this community, this experience is yours to seize, and I wish you bon voyage.