Commencement Address by Senator John F. Kennedy at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, June 17, 1956

I am proud and grateful for the honor bestowed upon me today by a University justly celebrated even beyond the borders of Massachusetts – an honor I could not possibly have foreseen some 16 years ago as I attended my own Commencement exercises.

There were some then, as now, who regard commencement as a very sad occasion. The pleasures, the values and the friendships of college days are at an end – the identical group seated here now will probably never again gather – this is the last of June springs most of you will spend here at Northeastern – and the sands of time will gradually erase most of the memories which seem so important today.

But a sorrowful commencement address to match this mood would in no way be appropriate to the more carefree spirit which also characterizes such an occasion. In keeping with this spirit of rejoicing, a commencement address would have to be a light and frothy mixture of hope and humor, reminiscing about the misdeeds of past intramural battles and plotting the deviltry of future alumni gatherings. It is a peculiar phenomenon of American college life, I might add, for the student to spend the early years of his life striving to attain the dignity of a graduating senior, and to spend the later years of his life, at least at such affairs as class reunions, striving to return to the dignity of an uninhibited sophomore.

In any event, it is apparent that neither a sad nor a joyful speech is quite adequate to this occasion. Something is needed in the way of a message that recognizes both the bright honor achieved and the new responsibilities awaiting – a message that might even presume to offer some advice to the graduating class about to undertake those responsibilities.

But what kind of advice? A traditional Senatorial speech might advise all of you to select politics as your career, to participate professionally in the governmental process. But most Northeastern graduates, I believe, already know what they are going to do – and when I look over the career achievements of past Northeastern graduates, or meet them in Washington, Boston, and all over the state, I am doubly proud to be even an honorary member of that distinguished group.

Well, if I could not tell you what to do, I might, following the lines of the traditional commencement address, instead concentrate on why you should do it – offering, if it were possible, new inspiration, high ideals and philosophical gems for thought. But once again I have concluded that such an effort would be wasted here. Few, if any, of you have attended Northeastern University for four or more years without deriving from your studies, your instructors and most of all from your own inner hearts and souls some sense of inspiration and idealism – a desire to serve others, an urge to contribute to your society, a deeply felt feeling that you could help make the world a better place in which men might live at peace.

No, I would not tell you what to do, I would not tell you why to do it - but permit me, if you will, a few brief comments on where to do it. And I address myself particularly to those of you who are residents, or returning natives, of the state of Massachusetts. I had previously announced the title of my address as "It's Your America Now" – for indeed that is in essence the theme of every commencement address today in every part of the nation. But to the overwhelming majority of you who are citizens of Massachusetts, my title might more accurately be "It's Your Massachusetts Now." For the theme of my advice to you can be summed up in two words – stay home.

I do not urge such a choice upon you for purely sentimental reasons. Nor would I want you to stay in Massachusetts because it is easier or more convenient or less risky. I do not even ask you to stay in order to vote Democratic in the Senatorial race of 1958. I want even the Republicans to stay – if there are any Republicans here.

No, I would urge you to stay in Massachusetts, to have faith in Massachusetts, to build your homes and your families and your careers here, for two reasons:

First, because Massachusetts presents unexcelled opportunities for today's college graduates; and secondly, because Massachusetts needs your efforts as no other state does.

First, what kind of opportunity does Massachusetts offer ? What are the prospects for the future, the chances for growth? Some are very pessimistic. "New England," a noted scholar wrote a few years ago, "New England is a finished place. Its destiny is that of Florence or Venice, not Milan, while the American empire careens onward toward its unpredicted end. New England is the first section to be finished, the first old civilization in America." Even more recently a well-known economist stirred considerable controversy by an article entitled "The Economic Decline of New England," which made telling points on our state and region's failure to keep pace with the industrial expansion of the South and the West.

This is not a false picture. The pessimists and the defeatists did not invent unemployment or business failures or plant migrations. And some of those who have criticized those gloomy prophecies the most have been the most responsible for them. Too many of our business leaders turn to New York for their shipping, the South for their expansion, the Midwest for their markets and the Far West for new investments. They are more familiar with Manhattan and Miami than with Boston and Nantucket.

All this is not an attractive picture for ambitious young men and women. And many of you, I have no doubt, have felt the urge to leave for other parts without even consulting these pessimistic authorities. I think I know something of the feeling, the desire to get away, the determination not to mark time or waste away in a declining, unexciting area. Your commencement, as every commencement speaker has said since classes were held in caves or trees, represents not an end but a beginning – not a victory but a challenge – and it is only natural that you would want to begin to meet that challenge, to make your mark, to make some contribution to society, in a locale which, superficially at least, seems to offer more of a challenge.

But I ask you to examine the prospects of Massachusetts more closely – to measure them not by the gloomy defeatism of the past but by the bright hopes for the future. For a new era is dawning in this state – economically, politically, and in every other way – an era in which young people such as yourselves, with an education such as you now possess, will play an increasingly important role.

For we stand at the threshold of the atomic age, an age which offers this state more than any other a revolution – a revolution in our industrial structure, in our standard of living, in our way of life. We stand, too, at the threshold of automation, which will transform an industrialized state such as ours long before other states have even heard of it. We are already seeing new industries, new products, new processes – and we may soon see new and growing cities defying the doubts of the pessimists. In such as exciting and challenging period of change and growth, the opportunities for younger people in this state are greater than ever.

We in Massachusetts cannot offer the world great deposits of uranium or growing fields of cotton or vast hydroelectric power projects – but we can offer the leadership and the vision and the determination, on the part of all our citizens, without which that uranium will be meaningless, that cotton will rot and those power projects will churn for naught.

It is not only an economic or technological transformation which the future offers. The whole nature of politics and public service is changing in this state. Young men and women, with high ability and high ideals, are to be welcomed, not scoffed at – and they will find inspiration, not disillusionment. The old political order in this state is changing, in both parties. And on the state, local or precinct level – in the State Legislature or the Town School Committee – young people are to play an increasingly important role.

I could go on to describe the potentialities of the future in many other areas – the social and cultural development of our state which continues to offer more to a young family than any other – the recreational possibilities, the employment opportunities, the educational facilities. I might remind those of you who feel eager to get away of those who are entering, not leaving our borders - coming from all over the nation, indeed all over the world, to Massachusetts – to enjoy our concerts, to remodel our factories, to attend our schools, to be treated in our hospitals, to study our history, to vacation on our beaches, to buy our products, and finally to just sample our rich culture, our appealing charms and our famous clam chowder.

All this and more I could remind you – but I am hopeful that enough has been said to cause you to pause and consider your plans and your travels - except perhaps, to add these words of Daniel Webster's some 126 years ago:

"I shall enter on no encomium upon Massachusetts; she needs none. There she is. Behold her, and judge for yourselves."

(2) But I mentioned a second reason for staying in Massachusetts – a reason which might at first seem contradictory with the first – and that is that Massachusetts needs you . She needs you if she is to build the kind of future I have described, to realize its full potential, to make it more meaningful for us all. We need young people to do this job – and I hope I can still include in that category one who (like Jack Benny) is a youthful 39 – we need young people with a new approach, with new ideas, with their eyes on the future instead of the past.

Massachusetts will never be ashamed of her past. The state of Adams and Winthrop and Sumner and Webster – the home of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and Paul Revere – the land that led the nation into new ways of agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, government, and social legislation – that is a heritage which we cannot and would not cast aside. But the past is not always the guide for the future – and deeds once done are not always enough – as the poet tells us so well in his legend of the wandering calf:

One day thought a primeval wood
A calf walked home, as good calves should,
And left a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way,
And from that day over hill and glade
Through those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out,
And turned and bent and crooked about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because 'twas such a crooked path.

But still they followed - do not laugh -
The first migrations of that calf,
And through the winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.

And for two centuries and a half
Men trod the footsteps of that calf,
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-ways of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do as other men have done.

This poem probably refers to the streets of Boston. I do not know. I do know that Massachusetts has too often, in too many ways, in too many fields of endeavor, followed the calf-ways of the mind. The dead hand of the past has affected our industry, our politics, our welfare, and the welfare of our state. It is up to you and me and all who will join with us to bring new leadership and new vision to our state.

I do not promise you riches. I do not promise you greater fame or a longer life or even a pennant-winning ball club. As a politician I have been told to guard my promises more carefully than that. But I do promise those of you who will have faith in Massachusetts and her future, those of you who will dedicate your careers to the betterment of your state and all her people – to you I can promise a lifetime of challenge and opportunity, sometimes exciting and rewarding, sometimes slow and difficult, but always, always worthwhile.

Will you join me in that effort? Will you pour back into the state from which it came that talent and vigor which your degree represents? [High on the Chamber Wall of the United States House of Representatives, inscribed behind the Speaker's desk for all to see and all to ponder, are these words of the most famous statesman my state of Massachusetts ever sent to the halls of Congress, Daniel Webster – words which are, I believe, particularly appropriate to this commencement:

"Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its power, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests and see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something worthy to be remembered."

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 895, "Northeastern University commencement address, 17 June 1956." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.