It is with a deep sense of honor and satisfaction that I have welcomed this opportunity to be here this morning and to receive this honor so generously bestowed upon me. A degree from La Salle College means to me something more than a scrap of paper, another in a long collection of degrees customarily heaped upon public figures or a document suitable for framing or for impressing visitors. I recognize the fact that honorary degrees are not always seriously regarded. Even more than fifty years ago, Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley had this to say to his friend Hennessy in discussing the honorary degrees recently awarded by a famous American college:
"A degree is a certyficate fr'm a ladin' university entitlin' ye to wear a mother Hubbard in spite iv th' police. It makes ye doctor iv something; and I don't mind tellin' ye, Hinnisey, that if I was a law (which I'm not), I'd have to be pretty sick before I'd call in manny iv th' doctors iv laws I know; an' as f'r American lithrachoor, it don't need a doctor so much as a coroner. But ivry public man is entitled ex-officio to all th' degrees there are. Some day ye'll see a polisman fr'm th' University iv Chicago at th' dure an' ye'll hide undher th' bed. An he'll say: 'Ye'd betther come along quiet. I'm sarvin' a degree on ye fr'm Prisidint Harper.' Some iv th' thriftier universities is makin' a degree th' alternytive iv a fine. Five dollars or a docthor iv laws."
A degree from La Salle College seems much more than this – because of the long history which has made this College and thus these degrees possible. For it was 274 years ago that St. John Baptist de La Salle gathered together at Reims 12 dedicated laymen, instructed them in the ways of teaching and urged them to make education available to even the sons of the poor. To this task of teaching all of their efforts were to be devoted, without the additional obligations of pastoral duties – and the Christian Brothers who today staff this and sometimes other schools throughout the world are indeed the spiritual sons of La Salle. They have believed and succeeded in bringing the light of education and truth to the darkest corner, the humblest home, the most reluctant student. Their qualities of dedication and compassion and courage have constituted one of the most inspiring chapters in the story of the church – qualities without which all that we hold dear would surely wither and perish – and qualities which I know those of you who have been fortunate enough to study at this college will be reluctant to leave behind.
But, if I may address myself to those students as they look forward to the day of their graduation, what concerns us most is not what you will leave behind but what you take with you, what you will do with it, what contribution you can make. I am assuming, of course, that you are taking something with you, that you do not look upon this college 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.
But this mutual suspicion was not always the case – and I would ask those of you who look with disdain and disfavor upon the possibilities of a political career to remember that our nation's first great politicians were traditionally our ablest, most respected, most talented leaders, men who moved from one field to another with amazing versatility and vitality. A contemporary described Thomas Jefferson 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.
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. 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.)
This versatility also existed on the frontier. Missouri's first Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, the man whose tavern brawl with Jackson in Tennessee caused him to flee the state, 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 Sancho Panza, from the Sacred Carpets, the German reformers or Adam Smith; from Fenelon or Hudibras, 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."
This link between American scholarship and the American politician remained for more than a century. 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 would urge therefore that each of you, regardless of your chosen occupation, consider entering the field of politics at some stage in your career. All kinds of professions have been represented in our political leaders. A Member of Congress from the Michigan Territory in 1823 was the eloquent and hard-working Father Gabriel Richard, a Salpician priest from Detroit. It is not necessary that you be famous, that you effect radical changes in the government or that you are acclaimed by the public for your efforts. It is not even necessary that you be successful. I ask only that you offer to the political arena, and to the critical problems of our society which are decided therein, the benefit of the talents which society has helped to develop in you. I ask you to decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil – or a hammer. The formal phases of the "anvil" stage are now completed for many of you, though hopefully you will continue to absorb still more in the years ahead. The question now is whether you are to be a hammer – whether you are to give to world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 899, "Upon receipt of honorary degree from La Salle College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 February 1958." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.