A Willingness to Stop and Think

From the President's Baccalaureate message to graduating seniors, delivered on May 21 when Chaplain Stanley Johnson made his eighth appearance at this ceremony:

Tradition dictates that we pause this afternoon to reflect upon your achievements over the past four years and the prospects that lie ahead of you. Those are themes you will hear much of in the next 24 hours, of course. But actually taking time out to reflect, to think seriously and quietly about the meaning of what we have done and experienced, and what we are about to do, is a rare event in these hectic times.

This Baccalaureate Service is such a moment, a brief, spiritual interlude amidst the rush of final Commencement preparations, graduation ceremonies and parties; the press of packing and leaving.

We live in a culture that seems almost consciously designed to keep us from experiencing moments like this. Where shouting and demanding seem more the norm than asking and thinking. Where spirituality itself is at risk of becoming a political issue, and politics seems about to drown-out everything else.

In such a time, it is important that your Penn experience helps you to find balance and perspective, as well as opportunity and accomplishment. That Penn experience continues even as we speak, for what we do here this afternoon can be as important as any other moment in your four years at Penn.

The last time you were assembled here, all together as a Class in Irvine Auditorium, was four years ago, for your freshman convocation. You were introduced then to the ceremonial side of academic life, the medieval robes, the pomp and celebration. Hopefully, too, you took away some sense of the values and traditions of academic life.

Central to that life--and to the life-long habits it seeks to impart-- is the willingness to stop every once in a while and think about what we are doing. It is that willingness, that sets in motion the processes of scientific investigation, artistic creation, humanistic understanding, and personal growth.

The philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt once identified this willingness to "stop and think," this "habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results," as a distinguishing feature of the life of ideas and theory. Yet she recognized, too, as did Benjamin Franklin in his own way, that the life of the mind and the values of theoretical reflection should not stand apart from those of practice and worldly affairs. We do not engage in such reflection solely for its own sake, but to inform our actions -- out there, in the world.

Indeed, Arendt argued that it is only the willingness to stop and think about what we are doing that protects us against what she called, in a controversial phrase, "the banality of evil," the fact that perfectly normal human beings can sometimes do perfectly horrible things without stopping to recognize their horror. This is an observation that echoes loudly for us in the wake of last monthÕs bombing in Oklahoma City, in the era of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, and genocide in Rwanda. On the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the Nazi holocaust perhaps now in particular the simple imperative to occasionally stop and think about what we are doing is a practical as well as a moral necessity.

So for the next few moments--

Think not about tomorrow, but about the days after tomorrow--and about what you will do with them.

Think about your friendships and how you will maintain them.

Think about your service in the community and how you will continue it.

Think about the profession you will enter and how you will practice it.

Think about democracy and how you will participate in it.

Think about your parents and what you owe them.

Think about yourselves and what you expect from your lives.

Think, too, about the fact that we have often come together in public places to do our thinking--not just today in this Baccalaureate Service, but throughout the past four years.

Coming together to think, honestly and creatively is what a university is all about. That is what Penn really is: a place where people must come together to think and to share their thoughts, freely and without sanction.

Sharing is an essential part of thinking--because thought that remains isolated and unexpressed, and unchallenged and untested by others, is unproductive and sometimes dangerous.

For each of us, of course, what claims our thought is different at different times in our lives.

But what we have in common, and what unites us this afternoon in this Baccalaureate Service, is our mutual recognition of the continuing claim of thought upon some portion of our time, our energy, and our participation.

And so as we share our thoughts and our reflections today, I want you to know that you shall be in my thoughts often,as I hope Penn will be in yours.

Congratulations and God bless you all.

--Judith Rodin, President


Tuesday, July 18, 1995
Volume 42 Number 1

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