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Convocation 2008
September 9, 2008 , Volume 55, No. 3

Below are the remarks given by Provost Ronald J. Daniels to the Class of 2012 on September 2, 2008.

Risking Imagination

by Ron Daniels

Thank you, Dr. Gutmann, and, welcome to the great Class of 2012!

By the accident of your birth, you are entering college in an extraordinarily pivotal year in American history.

As you embark upon the next four years of your life, this country is gearing up for the presidential election that will shape the next four years of its life. Many of you will be participating in the democratic process for the first time, and—if the polls hold true—in much greater numbers than ever before.

You are now—in the eyes of the state at least—adults. For many of you, who still vividly remember your first day of kindergarten, this may come as something of a shock.

And understandably so, for the larger transition you’re making, in our intellectual community and beyond, is both gradual and somewhat nerve-wracking—but I hope you’ll trust me that it’s going to be immensely rewarding.

In the first line of Metamorphosis, the Roman poet Ovid declares his intention to “speak about bodies changed into new forms.” Throughout his narrative, which invokes classical myths to tell the story of humankind, Ovid frequently acknowledges the “uncertainty” that accompanies transformation.

I suspect many of you are experiencing that kind of uncertainty this very moment. What will I major in? Who will I become close to?  How will I change and what will I become?

But rather than let your anxiety consume you, I invite you to sit back and revel a bit. There is no need to rush. Allow yourself to stretch out your process of transformation over the course of the next four years—at least. Think of college as the time designated for your own personal metamorphosis—a phase that is uncertain, yes, but also filled with the exhilaration of confronting the unplanned, the unpredictable, and the unknown.

I am confident that my faculty colleagues will back me up. 

They know first-hand that perplexity is often, indeed almost always, a prerequisite for creative insight and understanding.  

As scholars, they are prone to challenge, to agonize, to investigate, and, if they are lucky, through this process, to discover and learn. But only in an environment of open-mindedness and risk can new knowledge truly be created.

Take, for example, Political Science Professor Diana Mutz, who recently found that the “in-your-face” nature of cable news reporting reinforces a polarization of public opinion.

Or what about Nursing Professor Linda Aiken, who more than ten years ago discovered that decentralized, nurse-friendly hospitals have significantly lower mortality rates!

Then there’s the Wharton faculty, who recently produced a special report on the subprime lending crisis that reviewed our current economic situation with a mind to preventing future meltdowns.

And in SEAS, there’s our new Penn Integrates Knowledge recruit, Robert Ghrist, a mathematician and engineer who has pioneered innovative tools to find and remedy gaping holes in seemingly impregnable security networks.

Without a willingness to look at problems anew, without the commitment to ask hard, unsettling questions, and without the courage to take calculated risks, none of these advances would have been possible.

So take a page from your professors, and join with us on a journey of sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating discovery.

In many ways, I believe that you are better prepared for this enterprise than your parents and teachers were.

You have come of age in an era in which it is possible to take extraordinary imaginative leaps every day, just by logging on to your computer. A page posted by a friend on Facebook can link you to a blog post about oil prices, which can in turn link you to an important new book about alternate sources of energy, which, in turn, can lead you to undertake advocacy in support of the truths and ideals that you have come to value. The world of knowledge, and the power that it unleashes, has been literally at your fingertips ever since you learned to type.

But for all its infinite possibilities, we know that access to the Internet can also make us lazy and complacent. Too often, we find ourselves relying on the standard portals. We go to Wikipedia more than we should, and we fail to explore other, less accessible, but ultimately more authoritative sources. 

And, of course, included in these alternative sources of ideas are your two best sets of study aids—your faculty and your fellow students.
You came to Penn because of them. And for good reason. 

Your professors are distinguished experts in everything from robotics to the psychology of ethnic conflict. Your classmates are artists, athletes, and activists. Your expansive curricular requirements and diverse College House communities—now celebrating their tenth anniversary year—will immerse you in a life of intellectual challenge. By engaging regularly with so many different disciplines and people, and by feeding off the creative energy in the air, I wager you’ll be tempted, more than once, to press vigorously outside your comfort zone.

Class of 2012: give in to that temptation!

Rally yourselves to take economics or philosophy or art history for the first time, to travel abroad for the first time, and yes, to vote for the first time. Each will require confidence and a leap of faith—and each carries a certain degree of risk.

In the nineteenth century, the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson urged young intellectuals to give themselves over to the risk of imagination. When we do, he wrote, “new passages are open to us in nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible.”

As you embark on these next four years, I hope you will keep these words in mind. Let Penn be the site of your metamorphosis. Surrender yourself to new passages—to uncertainty—and you’ll find there’s no limit to your potential, no end to what you can accomplish. Bon voyage.

Related: Traveling Unconventional Paths: Remarks by President Amy Gutmann

Bridging Gaps: Remarks by GAPSA Chair Andrew Rennekamp
Almanac - September 9, 2008, Volume 55, No. 3