September 14, 2010,
Volume 57, No. 03
Below are the remarks given by Provost Vincent Price to the Class of 2014 on September 7, 2010.
An Education in Balance
As Provost, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Penn.
Tomorrow, you begin your undergraduate studies. Tonight, you can relax.
You’ve met your roommates, unpacked your bags, and chosen your classes. You’ve visited a dining hall. And you’ve explored the campus, if only a little.
Now if you have a good memory of your previous visits to campus, or a keen eye for detail, you may have noticed what’s missing here on College Green.
In late June, a tremendous summer storm barreled through Philadelphia. A number of trees on campus were damaged, including a significant one that was just to my left. Every morning, I looked out my window, just over there at this 114-year-old tree; Penn’s largest and most majestic American elm.
Incidentally, the tree was damaged by wind, not struck by lightning, so there’s no direct Ben Franklin connection.
The elm wasn’t totally uprooted in the storm, but half had splintered and required removal. I was pleased to see, after the clean-up, that the other side had been saved.
But two weeks later, I was dismayed to see that it, too, was being taken down.
It turned out that the two sides of the tree were interdependent, the one balancing the other. I learned that the remaining half, though it appeared healthy, would not survive.
Why mention that tree tonight? Well, there are a few parallels here, to Penn itself and to the education it will provide.
A tree is full of dualities.
It is solitary, but also part of a vast, communal fabric.
It is a practical and useful object—something that gives shade, and even a degree of shelter —but also beautiful, with its own history and cycles of regeneration.
We see it and rely on it each day, yet we’re not always aware of its importance.
Penn, too, was founded with a dual purpose. Franklin’s Publick Academy, as he called it, was to teach both the practical and the theoretical—what he termed the useful and the ornamental. The specific, and the broad. Two branches of learning, each reliant on the other, to provide a complete education that would serve society.
And two languages. In Franklin’s plan, classes would be taught in classical Latin, but also in English. He further insisted on a multidisciplinary education, long before that term was invented. A Penn education meant exposure to the liberal arts and also to what he called the Professions: science, medicine, business, engineering, and accounting. This was all very new at the time, quite unlike the education at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.
Which brings me to the dual aspects of your education here, each complementary to the other: independence and responsibility.
During your four years, you will have the opportunity—the freedom to take classes in many different disciplines. Now is the time to take some academic chances—that course in art history, or Japanese, or microfinance, or astronomy—before you have the demands of a major or a specific field of study.
This is an independent journey.
Your professors, your advisor, your classmates and friends—all will help to guide you along the way. But no one will pick your classes, or wake you in the morning, or tell you when to go to bed.
Of this last, I’m quite certain.
With that independence comes responsibility: You are responsible for your intellectual and civic development.
Responsible for making smart choices, from your performance in the classroom to your conduct on campus.
Responsible for making the most of this four-year opportunity.
Responsibility and independence are best realized in balance, each dependent on the other.
Plan, but don’t fear being in the moment.
Consider the future, but don’t obsess about it.
Work hard, but enjoy yourself.
And this may sound like odd advice coming from Penn’s Chief Academic Officer, but please don’t over-think every decision.
With Penn, Franklin tried something new. I hope you will too.
Keep in mind that a major is not a profession. Take a class just because it seems interesting, or unusual. Join a club or a group or a team, not because you’re good at something, but because you’re not. This is the way to become well educated, and well balanced.
I’m told a new tree will be planted where the great elm once stood.
I understand we haven’t found the perfect specimen just yet. You see, even in horticulture, we’re extremely selective in choosing our newest members.
By the time you graduate, the tree will have taken root, and grown a bit.
As you will have.
That tree will remain part of this place long after you’ve graduated.
I expect you will too.
There will inevitably be some difficult moments, even some raging storms.
They will pass.
Your Penn education and this tree will share more in common than a coincidence of timing.
Your studies here will be practical and, in Franklin’s terms, ornamental.
Your Penn education will enable you to stand alone, to grow as a person.
It will make you part of a vast communal fabric, rooted in a larger community.
In the coming years, rushing to and from class, you will cross College Green countless times.
On occasion, I hope you will take just a second to stop and simply look around: to appreciate this wonderful place, this leafy urban campus, nourished and grown, over centuries from fertile minds like your own.
I wish you the very best, and welcome you to the great Class of 2014.