If the educated citizen does not defend the pursuit of learning, 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.” And, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist at every level of government the improvement of education for all Americans, from grade school to graduate school.
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.
“At the Olympic games,” Aristotle wrote, “it is not the finest and strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists-for out of these the prize-men are elected. So, too, in life, of the honorable and the good, it is they who act who rightly win the prizes.”
I would hope that all educated citizens would fulfill this obligation–in politics, in Government, here in Nashville, here in this State, in the Peace Corps, in the Foreign Service, in the Government Service, in the Tennessee Valley, in the world. You will find the pressures greater than the pay. You may endure more public attacks than support. But you will have the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society.
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.
Certain other societies may respect the rule of force–we respect the rule of law.
The Nation, indeed the whole world, has watched recent events in the United States with alarm and dismay. No one can deny the complexity of the problems involved in assuring to all of our citizens their full rights as Americans. But no one can gainsay the fact that the determination to secure these rights is in the highest traditions of American freedom.
In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of our country to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence, and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our free society depends.
When Bishop McTyeire, 90 years ago, proposed it to Commodore Vanderbilt, he said, “Commodore, our country has been torn to pieces by a civil war… We want to repair this damage.” And Commodore Vanderbilt reportedly replied, “I want to unite this country, and all sections of it, so that all our people will be one.” His response, his recognition of his obligation and opportunity gave Vanderbilt University not only an endowment but also a mission. Now, 90 years later, in a time of tension, it is more important than ever to unite this country and strengthen these ties so that all of our people will be one.
Late American President John F. Kennedy made these remarks in Nashville Tennessee at the 90th Anniversary Convocation of Vanderbilt University, May 18, 1963.
When these remarks were made Nigeria was barely three years old as an independent nation, today we stroll towards our 58th independence day with little but no direction because our own educated class have simply refused to get it right.
The Nigerian state if anything like it does exist has been governed, ruled and her affairs directed by the best of her worst, and worst of her best, one week, one trouble, one drama very little to encourage has left us almost permanently on the edge. Very little is done from Zamfara to Uyo, Kaduna to Ogun, Benue to Lagos, Plateau to Umuahia to heal to repair damages, to unite this country, and all sections of it, so that all our people will be one.
The general elections are few months away but again the run-up is the same difference, we remain torn by same ethno-jingoist drive. We are not one, our youths whether lazy or hardworking are products of a land with no full meaning of their rights and their responsibilities.
The law is no longer an adhesive force in the cement of our society; we have created chaos out of order and anarchy in place of coherence. We have simply refused to treat ourselves with decency and with dignity. We subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrade our heritage, ignore learning, and betray our obligation.
Let me end in this manner, the Nation, indeed the whole world, has watched recent events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. No one can deny the complexity of the problems involved in assuring to all of our citizens their full rights as Nigerians.
In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of our country to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence, and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which a free society depends…or else the next elections would be another charade, whether that is what we want—only time will tell.