May 15, 2005 - Baccalaureate Remarks

Striving in the Spirit of Caring

Parents, families, friends, and colleagues, welcome.

And congratulations to members of the great Class of 2005, my first Penn graduating class!

I would like to open with a memorable quote from a towering work of art: The Simpsons. Eight-year-old Ralph Wiggum asks: “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!”

Fear not, graduates: I think it is safe to say that you all passed!

Commencement weekend is a time to celebrate your accomplishments with your loved ones, swap favorite memories with your classmates, and plan the next leg of your life’s journey. In these precious moments, you realize that this probably is the last time you will all be together as a class. So a good night’s sleep will have to wait.

Amidst all the frenzy of this joyous weekend, I ask you to reflect not on what you have done, but rather on the young men and women you have become.

Think back to that gorgeous September evening in 2001 when you assembled on College Green for Convocation. You had just finished reading Candide for the Penn Reading Project.

Remember all the disasters and calamities that befall young Candide? The devastating Lisbon earthquake? The flogging?

The major issues in your lives back then were far less world-shaking: whether to drop the Econ class; what to wear to the fraternity party on Saturday night; getting accustomed to using a coed bathroom on your college house floor; telling your parents to stop calling so often … while reminding them that it was OK to keep sending money.

You belonged to the smartest entering class in Penn history, and your whole future at Penn lay in front of you. You were on top of the world.

Less than a week later on September 11, the world shook, and we all were shaken to the core. In those first days following the terrorist attacks on our country, any sense of invulnerability vanished and gave way to fear and bewilderment.

Would you resist the temptation to turn inward in denial -- or to lash outward in anger? Or would you instead engage classmates of different backgrounds and faiths? Could you bring comfort, healing, and constructive engagement to our terribly – and terrifyingly – divided world?

So many daunting challenges to confront at the dawn of your life at Penn. You probably felt – to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen – that you weren’t so young anymore.

Yet, you had a unique opportunity. As the philosopher Maimonides said: "If now, in the days of my youth, I do not acquire good qualities, when shall I acquire them?"

You seized that opportunity. You made the most of your days at Penn. Not only did you acquire good qualities – and virtues and skills -- in abundance, you also put them to good use for the good of others. And you regained your youthful exuberance along the way. What a rough road you have traveled, and what amazing individuals you have become as a consequence!

Among you are many young men and women who pushed the envelope in learning and service: You have done path-breaking research on lung disorders and spinal cord injuries. You have brought information technology to communities in Philadelphia, India, Pakistan, Ghana, and Cameroon.

You have created the Voices of Philadelphia project. You have served with the National Guard in rebuilding Bosnia, and explored the moral foundations of national identity to develop a framework for a free and just world.

While sectarian strife raged in many parts of the world, you cultivated a deeper understanding of one another’s faith traditions.

True, you did not solve the most complex and controversial issues of our time. Your Penn education was meant above all to prepare you for the reality making progress while being unsettled, and to learn how to make the most – and contribute the most – to a complex world that is not prone to easy solutions.

Knowing how much you do not know, as Socrates teaches us, is the truest sign of wisdom. Once you enter the wisdom zone, you want to learn more, to understand more, and to keep asking questions.

This Baccalaureate service at Penn dates back to 1865, not long after the American Civil War had ended.

Three months earlier, President Lincoln had called for national healing in his second inaugural address. Worried that his plea for “malice toward none and charity toward all” had fallen on deaf ears, Lincoln asked the great Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for his impression of the speech.

“ Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass said, “that was a sacred effort.”

Women and men of the great Class of 2005, you, too, have made sacred efforts to enrich our community of scholars and to serve others. I pray that long after you graduate you keep striving in this same spirit of caring.

Never stop caring. Never stop learning. And never lose your infectious joy for living. You have grown into remarkable human beings whose greatest accomplishments are yet to come. With your ongoing Penn education to guide you, nothing – as little Ralph Wiggum would say – nothing is unpossible! Thank you.