This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A single reading copy of the speech exists in the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library. The document contains handwritten revisions although these do not appear to be in Kennedy's handwriting. Page images of the reading copy can be found here.
All of you are familiar with the motto credited to Francis Bacon, but actually traceable back to ancient scriptures, that reads: "Knowledge is power - Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est." No doubt that slogan has appeared on many a school or teachers' college bulletin board. But now this truism is truer than ever before, a statement that sums up volumes of prose about the cold war. Which nation has the scientific personnel and know-how to develop the rockets which will carry men to outer space - reconnaissance satellites - a defense against intercontinental missiles? How long will the West retain its dwindling lead in productivity and living standards - to what extent can it export to its less wealthy friends the capital, the technical assistance, the skills and other knowledge they need? The answers to these questions over the long run are in the hands of our nation's teachers. We no longer complacently believe that the educational and scientific capabilities of this country cannot be duplicated elsewhere. We recognize that the race for advantage in the Cold War is not only a competition of armaments, production, ideology, propaganda and diplomacy but a race of education and research as well.
The advantages which will enable the United States to win this race, however, whether they take the form of better proximity fuses or new uses for coal will not instantly spring up in the hour they are required. There is a lag of from five to ten years between the results of fundamental research and the practical applications of those results. Before that research can even take place, several years of training and experience are required; and even before that, the mind of the future scientist must be properly molded and stimulated by his elementary and secondary school teachers.
Mr. Khrushchev's boasts about Soviet science help to point up how critical this race has become. The Soviet Union already has available for this work more engineers and scientists than we presently have in any capacity in this country, and very nearly as many as this country and Western Europe combined. In recent years, the output of new engineers and scientists in the U.S.S.R. has surpassed that of the total United States and Western Europe graduating classes in these fields - their current enrollment of such students in institutions of higher education exceeds our own - and we are already falling short of even our current needs. Their lead may become even more serious, and in the most critical areas of technical knowledge within the next decade, according to Allen Dulles of the CIA, "unless we quickly take new measures to increase our facilities for scientific education."
It is apparent, too, that this lead is not merely one of numbers, but of quality as well. A special study by the Joint Atomic Energy Committee of the Congress concluded that "the training given Soviet engineers and scientists is of a high order and compares favorably with the best in the United States and Europe."
The same study pointed up the responsibility of our public school systems in this area. The teaching of the physical sciences and mathematics in our secondary schools has declined; about half of those with talents in these fields who graduate from high school are either unable or uninterested in going to college; and of the half who enter college, scarcely 40 percent graduate. The task of reversing these disturbing trends is in large measure up to our public schools and their teachers. It is up to our teachers' colleges and their graduates.
In short, our position in the world and our hopes for survival ten, twenty or thirty years from now depend in large measure upon the kind of education which you entering the teaching profession are able to offer your pupils today.
But we need something more than a nation of scientists and technicians - something more than an arsenal of super-weapons and ingenious inventions. We must have men and women capable of leading the "free world," of taking the hard and unpopular decisions necessary to preserve world peace and national security. In our concern over the education of more scientists and engineers for the future America, we dare not neglect the education of its politicians.
I realize that most Americans, including educators, are not accustomed to thinking of us politicians as educated men. We may be experienced, or cynical, or skillful, or shrewd or even fluent - but no more education is required for this kind of success, it is assumed, than how to find one's way around a smoke-filled room. Successful politicians, according to Walter Lippmann, are "insecure and intimidated men," who "advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate" the views and votes of the people who elect them. It was considered a great joke years ago when the humorist Artemas Ward declared: "I am not a politician, and my other habits are also good." And, in more recent times, even the President of the United States, when asked at a news conference early in his first term how he liked "the game of politics," replied with a frown that his questioner was using a "derogatory" phrase. Being President, he said, is "a very fascinating experience … but the word 'politics' … I have no great liking for that."
But under our form of government, we must put our ultimate faith in ordinary men, not machines or experts. In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, (then) the remedy is not to take it from them - but to inform their discretion by education."
"To inform their discretion by education" - that is the task of every teacher in every city and village in America. The students of today who may discourage their teachers, harass them, and hopefully sometimes cheer them include the leaders and diplomats of tomorrow. Prince Bismarck once said that one-third of the students in Germany broke down from dissipation; one-third broke down from overwork; but the other third ruled Germany. (I leave it to each of you to decide which third becomes teachers.)
But in this country there can be no doubt that our educated and thinking citizens must of necessity be among the rulers of our land. The only question is what kind of education they need and will receive. Permit me to offer a few suggestions from my vantage point in the political arena.
First, I would emphasize that we need not an over-concentration upon civic and political affairs, but the development of a broad range of talents. We do not need men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once said that he would be a better man if he knew a third subject - but he was interested in nothing but the Constitution of 1688 and himself. We do not need the kind of political education once described by Lord Bryce as "sufficient to enable them to think they know something about the great problems of politics, but insufficient to show them how little they know." We need instead men with the education of Thomas Jefferson, described by a contemporary as "A gentleman of 32, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." We need men like Daniel Webster, who could throw thunderbolts at Hayne on the Senate Floor and then stroll a few steps down the corridor and dominate the Supreme Court as the foremost lawyer of his time; like John Quincy Adams, who, after being summarily dismissed from the Senate for a notable display of independence could become Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and then become a great Secretary of State. (Those were the happy days when Harvard professors had no difficulty getting Senate confirmation.)
Secondly, I would emphasize that we need scholarship fitted for practical action, for something more than merely discussing political issues and deploring their solutions with learned phrases. For, as George William Curtis asked a similar body of educators a century ago, in urging their interest in the Kansas-Nebraska controversy: "Would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that Greek summer day through whose hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and his three hundred stood at Thermopylae for Liberty? Was John Milton to conjugate Greek verbs in his library, or talk of the liberty of the ancient Shunamites, when the liberty of Englishmen was imperiled?"
It is not enough, therefore, that our schools merely be great centers of learning, without concerning themselves with the uses to which that learning is put in the years that follow graduation. Indeed, care must be taken to see that it is not all left behind upon graduation. Dean Swift, you know, always said that Oxford was truly a seat of great learning; for all freshmen who entered were required to bring some learning with them in order to meet the standards of admission - but no senior, when he left the University, ever took any learning away, and thus it steadily accumulated.
Third, I would emphasize the importance, in teaching students about public affairs, of avoiding the confusion of political idealism with political fantasy or rigidity. We need idealism in our public life - we need young men and women who will stand for the right regardless of their personal ambitions or welfare. But let us not permit them to carry that idealism to the point of fantasy - to the point where any compromise or concession is regarded as immoral. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals. Politics, as John Morely has acutely observed, "is a field where action is one long second best, and where the choice constantly lies between two blunders;" and legislation, under the democratic way of life and the Federal system of government, requires compromise between the desires of each individual and group and those around them.
I have posed to you today the challenge that confronts the educational system of America - the challenge of world leadership or world weakness, of success or failure in the Cold War years to come, the challenge of survival or extinction. The question remains as to whether our educational system today is capable of meeting this challenge - or whether a shortage of teachers, a shortage of classrooms, a shortage of money and a consequent lack of high quality education will not in the long run prove to be the undoing of our nation.
That public education is in a state of crisis today is well known. There is less agreement on the cause and on the cure. I can only hope that those who recognize the urgent need of improving public education in this country will not exhaust their efforts in looking for a scapegoat, but will join in attacking the problem at its very roots.
The responsibility for ending this crisis, in my opinion, must be shared at three levels - Federal, State and local.
First, The Federal Government, which has far greater as well as more effective means for raising public revenues, has an unavoidable responsibility of approving promptly a bold and imaginative program of federal assistance to the states and local school districts for the construction of public schools, leaving all direction of academic content and standards, of course, in local hands. Our teachers cannot be expected to fulfill their critical responsibilities when millions of boys and girls are deprived by the classroom shortage of full-time schooling, or are held back in unwieldy classes of 40 or more. We need this year at least 135,000 additional classrooms to meet their requirements. The valiant efforts of state and local authorities must be supplemented by Federal action to meet this nationwide problem.
But more and better classrooms are not enough. More and better teachers are also needed, better trained, better paid, better utilized. Here the state and local authorities share responsibility with the Federal Government. And it is not a question of quantity alone. Many states actually have too many teachers' colleges which are, as a result, too small, too poorly financed and staffed, and too ill-equipped in terms of physical plant, libraries, laboratories and other facilities.
Authorities on the State level could also take steps to improve teacher certification, re-examining outmoded statutory requirements, maintaining and gradually elevating minimum standards, and providing - for those who do pass - a sense of accomplishment and prestige, comparable to that given those who are admitted to the legal and medical professions.
Finally, a large measure of responsibility for improving the quality of teaching in our schools rests with our local school board and school administrators. Not as a United States Senator, but as an interested citizen, I would respectfully suggest that present methods for recruiting teachers might be re-examined - to attract the best students, to select the best graduates, to compete in the labor market with the expertly developed recruitment methods of American business.
During this past school year, 50,000 teachers were on the job who had no adequate preparation or training for that job. Yet still another 50,000 teachers were desperately needed to relieve over-crowded classrooms, to enable children to go to school fulltime, or to teach the essential courses which simply were not being covered.
Once teachers are recruited and hired, more can be done to improve the methods of teacher promotion. We must find better means for providing better rewards for our better teachers; we must make actual use of probationary periods to retain only those with satisfactory performance records; and we must demonstrate concretely to young beginners in the field that real opportunities for advancement await those whose contribution is of the highest caliber.
More can be done, also, in terms of better teacher utilization - removing dull and burdensome administrative details and paperwork that might better be done by electronic computers or parent volunteers.
And finally, and perhaps most important, the Federal and State Governments - school boards, school patrons and all of our citizens - must cooperate in the effort to achieve better teachers' salaries. No profession of such importance in the United States today is so poorly paid. No other occupational group in the country is asked to do so much for so little. No amount of new classrooms, television, training and recruitment techniques can attract and retain good teachers as long as their salaries are beneath the responsibility and dignity of their position. We pay the average railway conductor nearly twice as much as we pay the teacher who conducts our elementary classes. Plumbers, plasterers and steamfitters are paid more for improving our homes than we pay teachers for improving the minds of our children. Here too the Federal Government must help the states do the job with an adequate program of federal assistance to raise teachers' salaries.
Help from the Federal level for more and better classrooms and higher teachers' salaries - help from the State level for better teachers' colleges and better teacher certification, help from the local level for better teacher recruitment, better teacher promotion, better teacher utilization and better teacher salaries - those are the goals toward which must move all those who recognize that in the hands of our teachers lies the fate of the nation.
"Knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon; it is also light. In the dark and despairing days ahead, our youth shall need all the light the teaching profession can bring to bear upon the future.