Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, June 3, 1957

Anyone who is interested in the history of the United States Senate always feels a great sense of privilege and responsibility in coming to this state and to this part of the state. For New York has had a long parade of unusually distinguished men who served their nation in the Chamber of the Senate – and one of these of whom I am particularly reminded today was a very distinguished member of the opposite party – Elihu Root. His father was the second principal in the history of the Syracuse Academy – and Root himself was always fond of upstate New York. Perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of his life came in Utica in 1906 when as Secretary of State he agreed to speak for his party in this state. The opposition had imported a gang of hecklers to make his speech impossible. Having secured copies of his address in advance, they had instructions to start interruptions on particular lines – shouting, for example, on the first reference to the late President McKinley, "Let McKinley rest in peace," with the others roaring their approval. Unfortunately for the hecklers, the meeting was packed with Root admirers and Hamilton College students; and the first one who started to interrupt was pushed in the face, and the rest were bodily threatened. Finally, when a great roar arose from the crowd to throw out one heckler, Root raised his right hand to quell the uproar, and in a powerful voice cried out: "No, let him stay – and learn!"

I trust that all of you will stay – I can only speculate as to how much you will learn – but I will welcome any heckling at the close of these ceremonies. I hope the example of Elihu Root will be an inspiration to all of those whom we honor on this solemn day of Commencement. For them, the pleasures, the values and the friendships of college days are coming to an end – the identical group sitting here this morning will probably never gather again – and the sands of time will gradually erase most of the memories which seem so important today.

But what concerns us most on these occasions is not what you graduates 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 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.

The high regard with which your education at Syracuse is held is evidenced by the intensive competition which rages between those hoping to benefit from it. Your campus is visited by prospective employers ranging from corporation vice-presidents to professional football coaches. Great newspaper advertisements offer inducements to chemists, engineers, and electronic specialists. High public officials plead for more college graduates to follow scientific pursuits. And many of you will be particularly persuaded by the urgent summons to duty and travel which comes from your local draft board.

But in the midst of all of these pleas, plans and pressures, few, I dare say, if any, will be urging upon you a career in the field of politics. Some will point out the advantages of civil service positions. Others will talk in high terms of public service, or statesmanship, or community leadership. But few, if any, will urge you to become politicians.

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. They may be statesmen, they may be leaders of their community, they may be distinguished lawyers – but they must never be politicians. 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 Artemus Ward declared: "I am not a politician, and my other habits are good also." 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."

Politics, in short, has become one of our most neglected, our most abused and our most ignored professions. It ranks low on the occupational list of a large share of the population; and its chief practitioners are rarely well or favorably known. No education, except finding your way around a smoke-filled room, is considered necessary for political success."Don't teach my boy poetry," a mother recently wrote the headmaster of Eton; "don't teach my boy poetry, he's going to stand for Parliament." The worlds of politics and scholarship have indeed drifted apart.

Unfortunately, this disdain for the political profession is not only shared but intensified in our academic institutions. To many universities and students 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, selfish, unsavory individuals, manipulating votes and compromising principles for personal and partisan gain.

Teachers as well as students, moreover, find it difficult 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 just or good. And even when they realize the difference, most 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)."Many intellectuals," Sidney Hook has said, "would rather 'die' than agree with the majority, even on the rare occasions when the majority is right." Of course, the intellectual's attitude is partly defensive – for he has 'been regarded with so much suspicion and hostility by political figures and their constituents that a recent survey of American intellectuals by a national magazine elicited from one of our foremost literary figures the guarded response, "I ain't no intellectual."

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 Fenolon 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. (Those were the carefree days when 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. 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 the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.

It is not enough to lend your talents to merely discussing the issues and deploring their solutions. Most scholars, I know, would prefer to confine their attentions to the mysteries of pure scholarship or the delights of abstract discourse. But "Would you have counted him a friend of Ancient Greece," as George William Curtis asked a century ago during the Kansas-Nebraska Controversy, "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?" No, the duty of the scholar – particularly in a republic such as ours – is to contribute his objective views and his sense of liberty to the affairs of his state and nation.

This is a great university, the University of Syracuse. Its establishment and continued functioning, like that of all great universities, has required considerable effort and expenditure. I cannot believe that all of this was undertaken merely to give the school's graduates an economic advantage in the life struggle. "A university," said Professor Woodrow Wilson, "should be an organ of memory for the state for the transmission of its best traditions. Every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation, as well as a man of his time." And Prince Bismarck was even more specific - one-third of the students of German universities, he 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 which category you fall in.)

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 political 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 could 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 and recognize the mutual dependence of our two worlds.

I do not say that our political and public life should be turned over to college-trained experts who ignore public opinion. 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). Nor would I give the University of Syracuse a seat in the Congress as William and Mary was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses.

But I do urge the application of your talents to the public solution of the great problems of our time – increasing farm foreclosures in the midst of national prosperity – record small business failures at a time of record profits – pockets of chronic unemployment and sweatshop wages amidst the wonders of automation – monopoly, mental illness, race relations, taxation, international trade, and, above all, the knotty complex problems of war and peace, of untangling the strife-ridden, hate-ridden Middle East, of preventing man's destruction of man by nuclear war or even more awful to contemplate, by disabling through mutations generations yet unborn.

No, you do not lack problems or opportunities – you do not lack the ability or the energy; nor I have tried to say, do you lack the responsibility to act, no matter what you have heard about the profession of politics. Bear in mind, as you leave this university and consider the road ahead, not the sneers of the cynics or the fears of the purists, for whom politics will never be an attraction – but bear in mind instead these words which are inscribed behind the Speaker's desk high on the Chamber Wall of the United States House of Representatives, inscribed for all to see and all to ponder, these words of the most famous statesman my state ever sent to the Halls of Congress, Daniel Webster:

"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 897, "Syracuse University commencement, Syracuse, New York, 3 June 1957." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.