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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For In The Final Analysis

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

“So, let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

For those of us who have grown up never having heard a great contemporary political speech, here is the remarkable speech given by President John F Kennedy at American University on June 10, 1963.

Kennedy was assassinated on this day in 1963, fifty-two years ago.

Powerful words, but does Kennedy’s analysis still hold true in the Age of Jihad – when we are preoccupied with ISIS and Al Qaeda rather than the Soviet Union, and when our enemies eagerly embrace death and have no thought at all for their children, let alone their own earthly future?

Imagine David Cameron giving a speech like this about the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, or Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. Imagine David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Tristram Hunt, Andy Burnham, Tim Farron or Nicola Sturgeon giving this speech. Try picturing it without laughing out loud.

The challenges today are different to those faced by Kennedy and our political leaders half a century ago. But rarely have our political leaders seemed so helpless, so inadequate to the tasks at hand. At best, our current prime minister might be described as a reasonably competent Comptroller of Public Services. And it is far from certain that he even aspires to be anything more.

They say that we get the politicians and leaders we deserve. If so, the time has come for us all to engage in some serious introspection.

JFK - John F Kennedy - American University Commencement Address

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We Choose To Go To The Moon


“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon [interrupted by applause]. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others too.” – President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 1962

I have recently been re-watching the excellent television mini-series “From the Earth To the Moon”. Executive produced by Tom Hanks and in much the same style as the film “Apollo 13”, it tells the story of the entire Apollo space programme, from its early beginnings and the tragedy of Apollo 1, through the enormous triumphs of Apollo 8 and 11, the lucky escape of Apollo 13 right the way through until the end of the endeavour. If you have not seen it, it is very well worth watching.

I have been a project and programme manager by trade for the past six or so years, and the exploits of NASA and particularly the Apollo programme have always held a particular fascination for me. In past job interviews I have joked that while most people look at the first moon landing and wish they were an astronaut, I was probably the only one who was moved to become a project manager! Of course, I would not have minded being an astronaut at all, and do very much hope to fly in space some day. But I suppose one of the things that has always excited the geeky part of my brain is how human beings can come together and organise such a complex programme to achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon – in the 1960s no less, when the technology and computer processing power in even my humble, malfunctioning BlackBerry vastly outstrips that which was available to NASA at the time. How do people organise themselves to run such a huge project, and plan and track all of the millions of individual actions and steps that must be successfully completed in order to achieve the desired outcome?

I post the above video for a couple of reasons. I am a (very) amateur scholar both of the history of the Apollo space programme and the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and rewatching my television series and flicking back through some of my books about the space programme made me think about more recent human achievements.

I was born in 1982. What great accomplishments of the human race have taken place in my lifetime? I might think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of communism, and the spread of liberty and prosperity that is still occuring as a result. I might also think of the cooperation of many nations to construct and inhabit the international space station – though no humans have left low earth orbit since that final Apollo flight, this is still a remarkable technological achievement. Or on a more micro scale I might think of the successful mapping of the human genome, with all of the promise that this holds for curing diseases in the future. There are probably many more that I have overlooked, and I would be interested if any readers would care to suggest some of them in the Comments section.

But all of this brings me back to President Kennedy’s speech on September 12th, 1962. How many people became scientists because of the unmatched human endeavour that followed this speech? How many people became engineers, or mathemeticians, or pilots, or astronauts, and how many people’s lives have been changed because of the new technologies and discoveries that resulted from it?

And in these hard economic times, when so many of the western powers seem to be retrenching and lowering their ambitions, what are we doing now that will inspire people, or challenge them, or make them proud of us in 40 years’ time?

We Choose To Go To The Moon - John F Kennedy - JFK - Apollo Program