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Penn Commencement 2009
May 26, 2009, Volume 55, No. 34

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Remarks by Dr. Harvey Rubin, professor of medicine, School of Medicine, and Incoming Chair of the Faculty Senate, Monday, May 18, 2009.

The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent


Greetings and congratulations from the more than 4000 members of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania; scholars from nearly every academic discipline, from American diplomatic history to Zebrafish genetics, from Z-algebras to Acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis, and many equally engaging stops in between.

At some point during this celebratory day, you will no doubt be asked to reflect on the host of formidable challenges that we face as individuals and as a society. In partial reply, let us consider our collective assets as a University and how well Penn has helped prepare you to meet these challenges. The word “assets” has been on the lips of citizens in the US and throughout the world in the past few years, and with increasing intensity over the past few months. Google the word “assets” and you will obtain an amazing 102,000,000 hits in 90 milliseconds. “Assets” oftentimes has appended to it colorful—if not unsettling—modifiers such as troubled and toxic assets, or exotic, forbidding and stealthy, such as foreign, nuclear or human assets.

On this day, let us reflect on the more positive characterization of assets—“a thing or a person that serves as an advantage or a source of strength.” You, as graduates, are clearly one of the four great assets of our University. Our physical space—our campus is our second great asset and, if you allow me the hubris, I submit that our third great asset is our faculty. I recognize, of course, that some of you may rather remember some of us as perhaps more toxic than as a source of strength—but none of that now.

Our fourth distinguishing asset is Penn’s core philosophy of integrating knowledge. This essential ingredient is recalled on this, the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge on The Two Cultures. Snow bemoaned the absence of commonality between scholars in the arts and humanities and scholars in the sciences and mathematics.  His lecture and book ignited a tempest in an academic teapot. Read Lionel Trilling’s analysis of that commotion which you can find in his collection of essays with the charmingly snarky title: The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. The injunction to be morally obligated toward intelligence reminds us of Penn’s motto which graces the arms and shield of this great institution. The dictum reads “leges sine moribus vanae”—laws without morals are useless—forming a classical triangle of knowledge, wisdom and morality—virtues of the arts and humanities as well as of the sciences and mathematics, and a cornerstone of the Penn Compact and your preparation—Sir Charles notwithstanding. 

You will presently clutch the academic degrees to be bestowed upon you by this University—a place where you have found teachers and you have acquired friends. The degree is your learner’s permit, but not yet your license, to become leaders of the free world, to dominate your disciplines,  to dream dreams and to see visions or more modestly and at the very least to become knowledgeable and responsible global and local citizens.    

President Kennedy—he of “let the word go forth,” “ask not,” “the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened” —liked to quote the ancient Greek definition of happiness as “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

On behalf of your faculty—go forth, be happy, use your full powers and pursue excellence, but all the while with the moral obligation to be intelligent. Thank you and congratulations.



Almanac - May 26, 2009, Volume 55, No. 34