It is a great if somewhat awesome honor to be here this evening with what is probably the greatest collection of brainpower any politician has ever addressed. More important, you are undoubtedly one of the most powerful audiences in the world -- powerful not in terms of the national and international policies you control or manipulate, but powerful because in your hands the future leaders of this nation, the most powerful nation in the world, are being shaped. Your responsibilities, consequently, are in many ways far greater than those of us who serve in national policy-making bodies.
My announced topic for this evening was "The Education of an American Politician." It was a title which frankly I thought might stimulate some interest -- for the simple reason 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 than that provided by smoke-filled rooms and back-stage deals. Even those of you who are required to be elected at the polls to your post as school superintendent or school board member do not, I dare say, like to regard yourselves as politicians. You may consider yourselves public servants or leaders of your community -- but never politicians.
It is disheartening to me, and I think alarming for our Republic, to realize how poorly the political profession is regarded in America. Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President but, according to a famous Gallup poll of some years ago, they 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 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 not great liking for that."
Unfortunately, this disdain for the political profession is not only shared but intensified by the educational profession. To many educators, we politicians represent nothing but censors, investigators and perpetrators of what has been called "the swinish cult of anti-intellectualism." To others, we are corrupt and selfish, manipulating votes and compromising principles for personal and partisan gain.
Educators find it difficult, I believe, to accept the differences between the laboratory and the legislature. In the former, the goal is truth, pure and simple, without regard to changing currents of public opinion; in the latter, compromises and majorities and procedural customs and rights affect the ultimate decision as to what is right or good, or more accurately, what is possible. And even when they realize the difference, many educators, academicians and other intellectuals consider their chief function to be that of the critic -- and politicians are sensitive to critics (possibly because we have so many of them). We in politics must rely on the majority, but "Many intellectuals," Sidney Hook has said, "would rather 'die' than agree with the majority, even on the rare occasions when the majority is right."
This disdain for the political profession in our schools and communities did not matter quite as much in the days when active participation in the political affairs of the nation was limited to a select few. But today, the implications of national policy necessarily make politicians of all of us. Today, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, “holds office”; every one of us is in a position of responsibility and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.
Consider, for example, the changes in our nation’s role in world affairs which make it impossible to prevent the man in the street from influencing, or being influenced by our foreign policy. In the past, public interest in and knowledge of American international commitments have reached their peak only in time of war when extraordinary demands were made upon our manpower and material resources. Even the war touched only indirectly the lives of many Americans. But the next "World War," unlike any other, will sear the lives of every American and bring, for the first time, massive death and destruction within our own borders.
Moreover, what has in the past been normal in peacetime is no more relevant to a discussion of the public’s participation in politics today than it is to an analysis of current budgets or airpower requirements; for this is a peace which resembles none previously experienced. Frequent hostilities, uneasy truces, military alliances, a world-wide struggle for the minds of men and a furious armaments race characterize the war upon which we have placed the curious epithet "cold" -- a struggle which will continue in our generation to maintain the same excessive wartime demands upon our lives and pocketbooks, and maintain the same heightened public interest.
Thus, the American politician of whom I speak today, and with whose education I am concerned, is in effect potentially each and every American citizen. His opinions, his votes and his efforts define the limits of our policy, provide its guideposts and authorize its implementation. In Lincoln’s words, that man on the street, the average citizen, the educated voter, "makes statutes possible or impossible to execute." His attitude toward taxation and selective service, foreign aid and alliances, the United Nations, imports, immigration, even his attitude toward members of minority groups in his own country -- all of these have an impact upon foreign policy far beyond his knowledge. Without his indispensable support and loyalty, no American foreign policy in times such as these can succeed.
There are, of course, dangers in this increased participation of the public in the policy-making process. Public opinion in a democracy has, on many occasions in this nation and others, been too slow, too selfish, too short-sighted, too provincial, too rigid or too impractical -- and in those situations we stand in great need of national leaders of courage and ability, men who are willing to stand for the right against the pressures of the public, men such as those whom I have described in my book on political courage.
But in these times, in facing these issues which deeply touch the lives and fortunes of every citizen, in making these hard decisions which require overwhelming public support, we cannot -- we dare not -- exclude the people or ignore their opinions, whether right or wrong. Instead, in the words of Thomas Jefferson: "If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them -- but to inform their discretion by education."
"To inform their discretion by education" -- that is your task, and the task of every teacher in every city and village in America: the education of American politicians, of all, or nearly all Americans to serve as politicians in making public policy. But what kind of education will you offer? What kind of training is necessary to prepare young Americans for a more active and enlightened role in the political affairs of their nation? 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 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.) We need men like Missouri’s first Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, the man whose tavern brawl with Jackson in Tennessee caused him to flee the state and yet, whose education was described with these words in his obituary: "With a readiness that was often surprising, he could quote from a Roman Law or a Greek philosopher, from Virgil’s Georgics, the Arabian Nights, Herodotus or Sanchez Panza, from the Sacred Carpets, the German reformers or Adams Smith; from Fenelon or Hudubras, from the financial reports of Mecca or the doings of the Council of Trent, from the debates on the adoption of the Constitution or intrigues of the kitchen cabinet or from some forgotten speech of a deceased Member of Congress."
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, intellectual achievements fitted for more than the delights of abstract discourse. 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 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 Morley 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. Henry Clay, who should have known, said compromise was the cement that held the Union together:
All legislation .. .is founded upon the principle of mutual concession
...Let him who elevates himself above humanity, above its
weaknesses, its infirmities, its wants, its necessities, say, if he pleases,
‘I never will compromise’; but let no one who is not above the
frailties of our common nature disdain compromise."
It is compromise that prevents each set of reformers -- the wets and the drys, the one-worlders and the isolationists, the vivisectionists and the anti-vivisectionists -- from crushing the group on the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum. The fanatics and extremists, and even those conscientiously devoted to hard and fast principles, are always disappointed at the failure of their Government to rush to implement all of their principles and to denounce those of their opponents. But the legislator has some responsibility to conciliate those opposing forces within his state and party and to represent them in the larger clash of interests on the national level; and he alone knows that there are few, if any, issues where all the truth and all the right and all the angels are on one side.
Some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forth-right principles -- or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising "politicians" -- are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and enabling our Government to function. Their consciences may, in one sense, direct them from time to time to take a more rigid stand for principle -- but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and-take of compromise will any bill receive the successive approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.
Fourth, I would emphasize the importance in teaching students about public affairs, of avoiding the confusion of national patriotism with national mythology. Instillation of a sense of patriotism, of national pride, of awareness and gratitude for the liberties and opportunities that are ours as Americans -- these are precepts which, of course, it is hoped every student shall grasp. But, at the same time, let us recognize the necessity of clearing away these false axioms and myths which, however comforting to our sense of security or appealing to our sense of patriotism, impair a realistic view of our nation’s role in the world. I refer to those myths, among others, that are based upon the untouchability of national sovereignty; the existence of inherently good, bad or backward nations; the emphasis of governmental economy over national security; or the impairment of an aggressor’s power by refusing him our diplomatic recognition.
Many Americans persist in the myth that the scientific skill of the United States cannot be duplicated in any other country that the democratic way of life, inasmuch as it is the best way, will inevitably be the victor in any struggle with an alien power; that the United States can never lose a war, or that its shores can never be attacked. Many still hold to the belief that our allies owe homage and gratitude to the United States and to all of its views at all times. There are those who believe the United States can still halt aggression by the arrival of a few American gunboats and Marines. There are those who oppose assistance to, or cooperation with our allies, those who reject bargaining or diplomatic pressure as a method of dealing with international disputes. Education for citizenship, for increased participation in American political life, must dispel these myths if it is to avoid the description once furnished by Lord Bryce of a political education "sufficient to enable them to think they know something about the great problems of politics, but insufficient to show them how little they know."
Fifth and finally, I would emphasize that this kind of education requires quality as well as quantity. I realize that education cannot fulfill its responsibilities when nearly a million boys and girls are deprived by the classroom shortage of full-time schooling, when millions more are held back in unwieldy classes of 40 or more and when the nation is short 135,000 qualified teachers. It is obvious to me that the Federal Government which has far greater, as well as more effective, means for raising public revenues has an unavoidable responsibility in 1957 to enact a bold and imaginative program of Federal assistance to the states and local school districts for the construction of public schools, leaving all control over education itself, of course, in local hands. But more and better classrooms are not enough. Even an increase in the number of teachers is not enough. Better trained, better paid teachers, using better techniques and textbooks are necessary if we are to improve still further the education of our citizens for the responsibilities of citizenship -- and that task is still largely one which is in your lap, not the Federal Government’s.
Of one thing we can be sure -- the graduates of our schools and of our universities will be expected to play an increasingly important role in American political affairs. The effort and expenditure by which society has made their education possible have not been undertaken merely to give them an economic advantage in the life struggle. They are expected to offer leadership and guidance for all. It was Prince Bismarck who said that one-third of the students of German universities broke down from overwork; another third broke down from dissipation; but the other third ruled Germany. (I leave it to each of you to decide which third attends conventions in Atlantic City.)
Those who are to be among the rulers of our land, in the sense that all thinking citizens must of necessity become political leaders, will not lack problems to which their education can be applied -- increasing farm foreclosures, for example, in the midst of national prosperity -- record small business failures at a time of record profits -- pockets of chronic unemployment and sweat-shop wages amidst the wonders of automation -- the care of the chronically and mentally ill -- monopoly, race relations, taxation, international trade and, above all, the knotty complex problems of war and peace, of untangling the strife-ridden Middle East, of preventing man’s eventual destruction of mankind. If those whom you send to solve these problems are truly” educated politicians,” as I have described that education this evening, if they can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge, if they can be, as Goethe put it, hammers instead of anvils, then there is no limit to the contribution they can make to the society which gave them that education.
There is considerable talk these days of the educational world’s need for assistance from the political world. I am confident that assistance will be forthcoming. But I have also stressed to you tonight, the assistance which the world of politics needs from the world of education; and to that end I ask your thoughtful attention to the task of uniting our two worlds still further.
"Don’t teach my boy poetry," an English mother recently wrote the Provost of Harrow. "Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament." Well, perhaps she was right -- but if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live on this 19th day of February, 1957.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 896, Folder: "Annual convention of American Association of School Administrators and National School Board Association, Atlantic City, 19 February 1957".