This is a redaction 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 at the John F. Kennedy Library. Page images of the speech can be found here.
I am delighted to appear today before this assembly of junior high and high school students. This group - I know - will not consider me too young to run for President. And I do not consider this group too young to begin thinking of your responsibilities of public leadership in the years ahead.
Many of you, I know, plan to go on to college. I hope you will consider very carefully the selection of a college - the courses you will take at that college - and the career you will pursue upon graduation. I am assuming, of course, that you will not look upon your university as Dean Swift regarded Oxford. Oxford, he said, was truly a great seat of 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.
And I also hope that those of you who do not go on to universities, will not consider that high school is an end to your education. The opportunities for learning and for fruitful experience outside of school are many and varied - as are the opportunities to make an important and meaningful contribution to your community and your country.
Making the most of your education, whether in or out of college - is not only important to you as students - it is of primary importance to the rest of the country. One-third of the students of German universities, Prince Bismarck once stated, broke down from overwork; another third broke down from dissipation; and the other third ruled Germany. (I leave it to each of you to decide in which category you will fall.)
But if you are to be among the rulers of our land, from precinct captain to President, if you are willing to enter the abused and neglected profession of politics, then let me tell you - as one who is familiar with the political world - that we stand in serious need of the fruits of your education. We do not need scholars whose education has been so specialized as to exclude them from participation in current events - men like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria once remarked 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. No, what we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge - who have had varied experience - men like Thomas Jefferson, whom a contemporary described 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."
John Quincy Adams, 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.) Daniel Webster 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. A little more than one hundred years ago, in the Presidential campaign of 1856, the Republicans sent three brilliant orators around the campaign circuit: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (In those times, apparently, the "egg-heads" were all Republicans.)
I do not say that our political and public life should be turned over to educated experts who ignore public opinion. Nor would I give colleges a seat in the Congress as William and Mary was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Nor would I adopt from the Belgian Constitution of 1893 the provision giving three votes instead of one to college graduates (at least not until more Democrats go to college).
But I do hope that our most talented young people will also contribute to our political and public life. I realize that most Americans are not concerned about the education of politicians. No education is considered necessary for political success, except how to find your way around a smoke-filled room. Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President, but, according to a famous Gallup poll of some years ago, some 73% do not want them to become politicians in the process.
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 good, also."
But society has helped to develop your talents - and it is going to need all the help you can give in return. I urge upon you participation on the political scene - not as a path to glory or fame or fortune - but as a means of solving the great problems of our time - recurring business cycles - growing agricultural surpluses - the trend toward bigger government, bigger business, bigger labor and a bigger squeeze on the individual - the growing gap in our standard of living compared to the rest of the world - and, above all, the knotty complex problems of war and peace, of preventing man’s destruction of man.
We want from you not the sneers of the cynics or the despair of the faint-hearted. We ask of you enlightenment, vision, illumination.