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Penn Commencement 2010
May 25, 2010, Volume 56, No. 34

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Remarks given Monday, May 17, 2010 by Dr. Robert C. Hornik, Wilbur Schramm Professor of Communication and Health Policy,
Annenberg School for Communication and Incoming Chair of the Faculty Senate.

Preparing For Life


On behalf of the 3,800 faculty at this extraordinary university I wish you congratulations. This is a day representing great accomplishment for you and a day of great pride for us.

Tradition requires that I ground my remarks in Benjamin Franklin’s words, and I do so gladly. As many know, our University is founded on Franklin’s Academy of  Philadelphia, first described in his pamphlet “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania” published in 1749. It was in that document that Franklin called for study of subjects both “useful and ornamental;” this was to be a place where people would prepare for a life of the mind and a life of application, and a commitment to service. There is much else in that document, but among the striking elements is what is not there: amidst all the detail of what is to be learned, there is little in it about the role of the faculty. 

Franklin’s proposal describes a rector who is to hire some masters or tutors. The tutors are given but two specific roles in a few words: to revise student letters and to supervise rehearsals of speeches. Do we really need 3,800 faculty to do that?

Partly this minimal role for faculty can be attributed to Franklin’s era and his experience: a school-leaver at 10 years of age, self-taught and peer taught, nonetheless Franklin was among the accomplished intellectuals and scientists of his age. There are no teachers in his autobiography either. There is only voracious reading and constant engagement with the minds of those around him. But is there more to take away here than an idea rooted in an historical moment? 

I think so. The fundamental implications are twofold: What any student, what you will take away from Penn is what you have engaged with, what you have produced while you were here. We may have been assigning grades but you were in charge of your education.  At one level that means you are likely to remember the final papers you wrote, the experiments and analyses you conducted and wrote up, and the discussions you had with your peers. You will likely better recall this work that you did than you will the specifics of our lectures or the details of readings we assigned. 

But more than that, if we were successful as teachers, we have given you the skills to teach yourselves. We would have made sure you understood, in each of our fields, how it is we frame questions and what methods we use to approach finding answers.

The implication is clear: what mattered to Franklin and matters to us is not what we have taught you; what matters is what you have taught yourselves with our guidance. So when the ideas we taught become outdated, and even the facts slippery, you will have the methods and the way of thinking on which to build.

We are proud of you.  Congratulations to you and best wishes to you and to your families.



Almanac - May 25, 2010, Volume 56, No. 34