Commencement Address at Sarah Lawrence College (1957)
Thank you very much Mr. President, honored guests, members of the faculty and the graduating class. I know that this seems to many of you a day when you're achieving the completion of your formal training. As a matter of fact, it is probably only the beginning of your real education, which will go on all through your life.
What you have learned here will be chiefly of value to you if you have acquired the tools with which to continue this education. You were fortunate enough to be born in a moment of history when the horizons of the world are broadening every day. But this broadening adds to your responsibilities, because no matter where you turn you will find new tools with which to work and you will need the ability to venture into unknown territories and analyze the information, which is yours to find.
Let us take the obvious field where the greatest strides are being made, the field of science. It is fairly well established that we have learned how to destroy ourselves if we wish to do so. But it has also been learned that it might be possible to use these instruments of destruction for creative purposes, to give man more leisure time. But of what use is leisure time if man does not know how to use it? So it becomes increasingly important that we see to it that all our people have education and a wide variety of interests, and that as the physical developments of science become available to us we develop culturally and socially so that the atomic age may not become an age of destruction but an age of creative production. This puts a great responsibility, I think, on not only those who guide young people, but on young people themselves. And I was interested as you sang the first of the songs, "Ralph Waldo Emerson," to find his emphasis on entering in to suffer and to work. I would add to that, I think, to suffer, to work and to enjoy, because I think that the clearest part of the possibilities that lie before us to really give great joy to human beings if we use those possibilities well. The strides that are being made in medicine open up great fields of change in the future. But almost all of the developments require greater responsibility on our part to know what we want to achieve. And I think that that is one of things that Sarah Lawrence has tried always to give their students: the power to think and to decide what they want to achieve in life.
It's almost impossible today to look at the developments before us and think that we might live selfishly, unto ourselves, alone. There was a time when we in this great country felt that it was quite possible to live within the limits of our own country. That time is past. We've almost slipped into our new position, and some of us haven't recognized it because it's been done so gradually, but today the United States of America is the leader of the democratic condit-tradition. It is the leader actually of those people who believe that the individual human being has rights and values and in return great obligations. And I think that instead of believing, as a great part of the world does believe, that human beings were created to serve the state or the government, we have a great obligation to show that what we believe in actually can give to large numbers of people the hope, the hope for a better future which they have lacked in the past. There are areas of the world where there is very little hope, very little understanding, beyond the mere fact that you exist and that you must have enough to eat to live from day to day. But that is changing. And our leadership has come upon us gradually but the magnitude of it has come rather quickly. Just in the last few months we have taken over the responsibility practically of making our decisions alone. For a long time we made them with our allies. But in the last few months our allies have become less strong economically, they have become less strong in military ways and we are the leaders of the free and democratic world. That means that every one of us, not just our leaders, but every one of us has taken on a new responsibility. Because what we believe in is built here, in our own lives, in the communities in which we live. And because we have today remarkable communications with the rest of the world, ease of travel, news reaches the other side of the world almost as quickly as it reaches us. Because of that, we have the responsibly to paint at home the picture of what we really mean by the ideals and the traditions which we say we live by, to translate those at home into realities.
Sometimes people think that there is very little left to be done. But there is so much left to be done in many fields that I think we frequently overlook the opportunities. We have not caught up with the developments of science in our social and cultural development. There is much still for us to do in understanding what really can be achieved by human beings. I think we could do a great deal more than most of us think we can do. And that opens up vistas for all of you in the future if you find that you can broaden your capacities, that you can accomplish more. I know for instance that it is possible today for people to do a great many more things than they did when I was young. I've lived a long while and I've seen great physical changes. And I realize that many things could not have been done in the days when I was young that are done today. The danger is that we will not live deeply as well as widely. But we must live deeply. We must learn to fail as well as to move with ease through this world of ours. And to feel and understand people is one of the great obligations that has come to us. Because with the contacts that we now can make, with the communications that now are available we must project ourselves into the lives of people that we never before had any knowledge of or any responsibility about their development or their understanding.
You have here, I know, a course on comparative religions. And that is one of the areas in which I have felt for a long time that we here in the United States should gain greater understanding. I remember years ago, once we had a Secretary of State who was in his way very religious. But he took a trip around the world. And when he came back my husband asked him, and my husband was then a young man, my husband asked him what had impressed him most in India. And his answer was the dirt of the Ganges and the lack of religion. Now that was characteristic of the thinking of his day. And that is something which we cannot afford to think today. We have got to have greater understanding of what we really mean by religion, of what religion really is. I still get letters from people who tell me: "How can you expect the United Nations to succeed when God is not a part of your daily exercise in devotion at the Untied Nations?" And I always smile because we do have at the opening of any big meeting a moment of silence, when each person can pray, can meditate, can do as they wish. But if we tried to have a uniform prayer it would be very difficult, because there are people there who have customs and habits of devotion that go back hundreds of years beyond the first settlers coming to this country. And I often write back to my correspondents and say: "I think if you came you would find that God is very much a part of the thinking of every member who feels their responsibility in the United Nations, because you know that of your own capacities you probably could not carry the responsibilities that are yours. But everybody does not call God by the same name. That nevertheless you cannot circumscribe God and say that he must be called only by one name. He is a universal being and the world knows him under many names."
And so we learn this lesson not only in religion but in many other things the better we will fill our role, because we have much to learn though we have become leaders. We have much to understand. And I think that on this graduation day that you young people can best fulfill the wonderful future that may lie before you by determining that you will do, to the best of your abilities, not to the least of your abilities but to the very best, the job of understanding the world in which you live. If you understand it you will, I think, realize that the thing you want to do with your lives is to make this world an actual world of brotherhood, not a world where people look askance of each other, where people are suspicious of each other. That is a necessity today because we do not understand, we do not really know, all the human beings in the world. But we must strive to move forward. We must strive in each generation to build a greater understanding of our fellow human beings. It will take the best that you have in you. It will take a great deal of your energy. But the better you build your own lives at home the better you will demonstrate that the things you believe in do build a value here which is worth emulation by the rest of the world. They will know of what happens here. They will know how you change your community and your country. They will know how you change yourselves into being the kind of people that can live in brotherhood with the other peoples of the world, that can recognize the need for help, that can also recognize the values that can be learned from other races and other areas of the world. But always you will need more strength than you have in yourself. You will always be striving for something which is beyond what you can do alone. And on this graduation day I wish for you the belief that when you need help you can always get it from a strength beyond your own, if your purposes are pure and good. I wish for you a sense of adventure in the life before you. I wish for you a lack of fear because fear leads to destruction. I wish for you faith in the future, hope for a better world and above all a determination to use your lives to the best of the capacities that God has given you. May you go forth with courage and may you have happiness and joy in the life that you will live.