John F Kennedy On The Responsibilities Of Educated Citizens

John F. Kennedy, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963

From Kennedy’s address to the 90th anniversary convocation of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, delivered on May 18, 1963:

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other. I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.

Increased responsibility goes with increased ability, for “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

[..] You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education. Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system. Modern cynics and skeptics see no more reason for landing a man on the moon, which we shall do, than the cynics and skeptics of half a millennium ago saw for the discovery of this country. They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

[..] Secondly, the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

[..] Third, and finally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society–but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding. For whether he has ever studied history or current events, ethics or civics, the rules of a profession or the tools of a trade, he knows that only a respect for the law makes it possible for free men to dwell together in peace and progress.

He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.

I think that we can all take something from this speech as an inspiration to strive to be better citizens, no matter our position on American politics and the forthcoming presidency of Donald J Trump. None of us are above learning from the example set by great men and women of the past.

Yet nobody gives speeches like this any more. Why?

Is modern political speechwriting so poor because it reflects the abysmal quality of our present political discourse, or is our political discourse so poor because our contemporary leaders, more concerned with bribing and placating a fickle public than calling us to any kind of higher duty, have increasingly lost the rhetorical skills required to persuade and inspire their citizens?



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3 thoughts on “John F Kennedy On The Responsibilities Of Educated Citizens

  1. AndrewZ November 23, 2016 / 1:14 AM

    Modern political speeches seem so poor in comparison to those of earlier ages because of the dominance of the national media. Most politicians have got used to using the media as their primary means of communication to the public. They also know that every media outlet will be free to selectively quote from their speeches to create whatever impression it wants. This is a particularly important concern with TV coverage, as the television news might only play a few seconds of the speech but those few seconds will define what it means to tens of millions of people.

    One way to deal with this problem is to treat the media as an adversary: bypass them entirely whenever it is possible to do so and browbeat them when it is not. This strategy has worked for Donald Trump but it requires a high tolerance for risk and confrontation, and a willingness to bet on the power of social media against that of the old media.

    But most of the politicians in senior positions today have spent their entire careers in an environment in which the total dominance of the mass media, and particularly television, is taken for granted. It’s so much a part of the landscape for them that they will rarely ever question it.Many of them are also highly risk-averse because their experience has taught them that taking a controversial position on any issue is likely to lose as many votes as it gains. The calculation of risk is different for a career politician who is committed to a long-term involvement in politics than it is for someone like Trump who is making a one-time “all or nothing” bet on the outcome of a particular campaign.

    So the only way that most politicians can manage the risk of being misrepresented by the media outlets that they rely upon to deliver their message is to make speeches that are immune to selective quotation. Therefore they make speeches in which every sentence is an on-message sound-bite that will create the desired impression if it is the only part that actually gets broadcast. This results in speeches that sound nonsensical when they are delivered to a live audience, which is why they have to be delivered to an audience of party loyalists who can be relied on to react positively regardless of what is actually said. But the real target is the television audience who will only hear a few seconds of it, so the ideal political speech for the television age is like a fractal – no matter which part you look at or how closely you zoom in, you always see the same simple pattern repeated.

    Fortunately, that age is now ending and the ability to speak to an audience who can and will listen to the whole speech – or enough of it to make up their minds – will become more and more important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper November 23, 2016 / 1:38 AM

      A great, informative comment there Andrew – thank you. What you say about the television age makes perfect sense. It was still new enough when JFK was around that he was unashamed to speak in paragraphs. By the time of Clinton/Blair it had reached peak, and so we were down to soundbite sentences bolted together. And now, as the television age is supplanted by the internet and social media, things change again – Donald Trump was able to make his freewheeling, rambling speeches on the stump, while others are still too beholden to the old way of doing things to change.

      I remember a couple of years ago when analysing an Ed Miliband speech I remarked that it was a meaningless word cloud of sentences that had focus group tested well, bolted together with the news editor’s video-clipping software in mind while the listener’s brain isn’t given a second thought. It sounds as though that is exactly the phenomenon you are describing in your comment.


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