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Baccalaureate Address by President Judith Rodin, May 18, 2003

Pursuing Common Goals

Welcome to all families, friends, faculty and honored guests. Graduates of the Class of 2003, tomorrow, you extraordinary young men and women will take the field named for our founder Benjamin Franklin to claim the prize and honor you have worked so hard to earn: a degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

In years past, I have saluted each graduating class for clearing academic hurdles that only get higher. And you deserve that praise. I have noted contributions to Penn's intellectual vitality and social fabric. And you deserve that praise. And I have marveled at the myriad ways our graduates began making a real difference in the world during their years at Penn. And you deserve that praise as well.

But today I would like to reflect on another quality that permeates the Class of 2003. It is a characteristic that you will need to succeed in all climates, be they economic, political, or cultural. It is a virtue that the world will need to survive and perhaps, someday, flourish. And that is courage.

I am not talking about the kind of daredevil bravado or recklessness that is fuelled by the destructive hate and vengeance of Ahab. The courage I have in mind and the courage I believe you possess in abundance is the measured, reflective, mature courage of Starbuck's--not the coffee, which is ubiquitous here, but Captain Ahab's wise and sensitive first mate in Herman Melville's great American novel Moby Dick. Melville introduces Starbuck as a "Quaker by descent" and a man possessed of "inner health and strength." Starbuck serves notice that, "I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale." The narrator interprets that declaration "to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage is that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward."

Now, there is no question that the world today contains far more danger and uncertainty than it seemed to have when you began at Penn four years ago. Today, borders and buffers have dissolved. Like the great white whale, a world that is vast and beautiful, but also dangerous and inscrutable looms large before us. Out of fear, some will duck under the covers. Like Ahab, others will lash out in hatred against what is unknowable. However, for you, neither retreat nor blind fury is an option. We have taught you to engage the world with courage born of the skills, compassion, and habits of critical thinking that you acquired here and that you will need to confront crisis, challenge, and reversal. We have also taught you to be ready to cross many borders.

Author Salman Rushdie writes, "To cross a frontier is to be transformed. Alice at the gates of Wonderland, the key to that miniature world in her grasp, cannot pass through the tiny door beyond which she can glimpse marvelous things until she has altered herself to fit into her new world."

At the same time, Rushdie suggests that the "successful frontierswoman is also in the business of surpassing. She changes the rules of her newfound land."

Graduates, your education at Penn has been the alteration process that's prepared you for many border crossings. You have learned the meaning of collaboration in the service of humanity at a very complex moment in history. You learned to live skillfully at Penn by forming alliances with your colleagues and making common cause with each other, harnessing and harmonizing your different skills and beliefs to pursue common goals.

Time and again, you pulled together, even when the grind of coursework and force of events could have driven you apart. And you have done many things that reveal your courage.

We've had an Engineering student go to Africa to create a multimedia documentary that explores the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of five heroic health workers.

We've had Wharton students launching a Social Impact Management Initiative in West Philadelphia to improve the quality of life for our neighbors.

We've had a team of College students launch an Empowerment Initiative that strengthens communications skills among high school students with high potential but few resources.

We've had two Nursing students prepare to become Navy pilots. And these are just a few examples.

All of you have been incredible during your time here. Now you must have the courage to continue to engage others with a compassionate heart.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "The human heart in modern civilization … is more prone to hatred than to friendship. And it is prone to hatred because it is dissatisfied, because it feels deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, that it has somehow missed the meaning of life. To find the right road out of this despair civilized man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind. He must learn to transcend self, and in so doing to acquire the freedom of the Universe."

If Bertrand Russell were writing today, he might have diagnosed fear and suspicion as sources of modern despair. We are seeing how fear and suspicion can diminish our capacity to enjoy the freedom that is the birthright of all people. Yet, Russell's prescription remains timely. Enlarging our hearts is liberating. It leads to respect for humanity and reverence for the source of all blessings bestowed upon us.

The great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the true person of faith is one who "holds God and man in one thought in one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harms done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

Graduates, my prayer for you is that you are always imbued with the love and reverence that we share today in this place. And may you gain the freedom and strength to bring to the world the gifts of your knowledge and learning. Godspeed to all of you


  Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 34, May 27, 2003