Tradition of Change

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A willingness to adapt links Penn’s past and present.

 By S. Morgan Friedman

WHEN I THINK about my class — the Class of 1998 — in relation to the 241 that have preceded it, I am struck by a curious paradox. On the one hand, my class is assured by our president and provost that we are the best ever to be graduated from the University (until next year). On the other hand, we idealize “the good old days.” We yearn for a time before bureaucracy — when getting an education meant something, when college was really fun. Penn is at its best today, but Penn was so much better back then. How can both be true? 
   In fact, despite annual assertions of superiority at graduation time, it isn’t that my class is any better or worse than any other in the University’s history, only different — as Penn itself is different. In no way do we resemble the College that William Smith turned into a preparatory academy for the ministry in 1755; seniors today don’t have to read books like Paley’s Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, as they once did. We can still read Paley’s book in a class if we want to — not so as to be convinced of its truth, but to see why students in the 18th century read it. Part of what makes Penn so beautiful is its willingness to change; Penn adapts itself to the future rather than remaining committed to old ways. 
   Take admissions, for example. A century ago, Penn began changing its admissions policy and accepting students other than its traditional constituency of the Philadelphia elite. In 1898, Penn awarded its first Ph.D. in History to a woman, Edith Bramhall; one of the first African-Americans at Penn, Eugene Theodore Hinson, was graduated from the Medical School in that same year; and one of the first Asians at Penn, Jumatsu Matsuo from “Tokio,” was in the College class of 1898. That was also W.E.B. Dubois’s final year at Penn. 
   Or take service. Penn moved from Center City to West Philadelphia in 1871 to escape “a vile neighborhood, growing viler every day,” in the words of Provost Charles Janeway Stille. Today, however, “service to the local community” has become one of the University’s guiding principles, enshrined just last year in the provost’s 21st Century Project. It’s thus fitting that former President Jimmy Carter, known for his work for Habitat for Humanity, is the Commencement speaker this year. 
   Faculty-student relations have also changed considerably in the past 100 years. Back then, students were known to occasionally pelt faculty with stones or make bombs with gunpowder to throw at them, play musical instruments in class, and sometimes bring in farm animals. Compared to that level of prankishness, current students don’t amount to much. 
   Today, Penn is again transforming itself before our eyes. My class’s four years here, which coincided with the first four years of the presidency of Dr. Judith Rodin, CW’66, saw the establishment of the Kelly Writers House and the Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (IAST), preceptorial classes that students take for fun, a new college-house dorm system, and so on. Penn has changed, but Penn has always been changing. 
   The year 1898 saw the construction of the Law School, the Biological Gardens, the Agnew Pavilion, and Dental Hall; this year saw the completion of the IAST building and the renovation of Logan Hall, while work continued on Sansom Common, the Perelman Quad, and renovations to Van Pelt Library. A century ago, Thomas McKean donated a stunning $100,000 to build the Law School; today Leonard and Madlyn Abramson donate a stunning $100 million to fund cancer research. The only thing about Penn that has never changed in 250 years is its willingness to change — an open-minded attitude that Penn has given me, for I now have ideas that I would have thought ridiculous four years ago. 
   Penn’s ability to embrace the new is summarized best by an inscription on one of the windows looking down onto the reading room of the Fisher Fine Arts Library: “It is an heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.” Heretics, in the tradition of Galileo, are just the first to adopt new ideas, and they’re hated for it. And I am proud to say that I will now be a graduate of a school of heretics and doubters, for the heretics of one generation might just be the wise women and men of the next.

Steven Morgan Friedman, C’98, is a senior history and English double major from Great Neck, New York. Explore Friedman’s online tour through Penn in 1830 at 

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