Speaker: Michael Penn

The Nature of Hope

Around the age of twenty-two, a near death experience transformed Dr. Michael Penn into a seeker. Following this profound encounter with his own mortality, he began an extensive study of sacred texts and the works of the founders of the world’s religions.

Today Professor Penn is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College. His research interests and publications include works in the pathogenesis of hope and hopelessness, the interpenetration of psychology and philosophy, the relationship between culture and psychopathology, the epidemiology of gender-based violence, and human dignity and human rights. He teaches a course called The Nature of Hope, which explores the biological, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions of hope. 

Many of his students maintain that in knowing Professor Penn, one gains not only intellectual knowledge, but also priceless wisdom and access to a variety of powerful stories. Born in North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Professor Penn and his family began life in the south where they lived inside an old school bus that had been abandoned on his grandmother’s property. After moving to New York in his childhood, it was an eighth grade teacher’s compassion that sent the teenage Michael to a boarding school in Massachusetts on a full scholarship and changed the trajectory of his life.  He went on to study Psychology, Religion and History at the University of Pennsylvania, and completed his doctoral study in Clinical Psychology at Temple University.  He also had opportunities for a life which is rich with many unexpected encounters.

While travelling in a village in Africa in his twenties, for example, Professor Penn nearly died of severe food poisoning. A spoonful of sugar water fed to him by a local traditional healer miraculously restored him. At another time, while doing dishes after a Baha’i gathering in Philadelphia, he met a woman who had appeared to him in his dreams. They were married a few months later, and this summer they will celebrate their 33rd anniversary.

Professor Penn has taught and lectured widely around the world and has been invited to serve as a consultant and speaker at United Nations-related conferences in several countries. He serves as a member of the faculty for the United Nations Staff System College in Turin, Italy, and as a trainer for the UN Leader’s Programme, which trains director-level United Nations officers. He currently serves on the boards of the Authenticity Institute and the Tahirih Justice Center in Washington, D.C. Professor Penn is a former Ford Foundation Fellow, a former Aspen Institute Fellow, and is the recipient of several academic awards, including the Solomon Wank Memorial Peace and Human Rights Research Award, as well as the John Russwurm Award for Scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Penn has written several academic papers that explore the concept of the human spirit and the conditions that facilitate its healthy development. His influential paper published in the Human Rights Quarterly in 2010, “The Protection and Development of the Human Spirit: An Expanded Focus for Human Rights Discourse,” examines human development as the central goal of every legitimate government. He is the author of Overcoming Violence against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem, published by Rowman & Littlefield, and is currently completing his new book Protecting Human Rights and Human Dignity in An Axial Age: Reflections on the Reclamation of the Human Spirit.

For eight years, Professor Penn and his wife Kathy opened their home to everyone each Thursday evening where people from different walks of life would connect, share a homemade dinner, enjoy poetry, music, life, and much more. Every Monday morning, they host meditation, prayers, and a delicate breakfast for whoever wishes to come by. On Sunday mornings, children would come to their home for children’s classes to nurture their moral and spiritual development; and every other Friday, they also host Evening Light Cafe for the community and mostly students from Franklin & Marshall College. Over tea and arts, young people gather at the Penn’s living room to explore and reflect upon the meaning and beauty of life. Many students see Professor Penn as a light in their lives who nurtures hope and goodness within themselves. Despite a very full schedule, his door remains open to all. Anyone who walks in is bound to receive two offerings: his very deep listening, and his respect.

Join us in conversation with this remarkable teacher and human spirit!

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