Commencement Speech at the Chicago Teachers College

Chicago, IL | May 23, 1962

A little education is not enough. A few teachers are not enough. The new nations are racing to build educational systems which will make social progress possible and economic growth attainable.

I am honored to be able to address this first graduating class at the Chicago Teachers College, North.

This is an inspiring building. I knew that was so even before I saw it for the first time. A friend of mine from Texas drove by here a few days ago. He called me later and described the college in glowing words and said, "Frankly, Sarge, we don't even have anything like it in Texas."

But then he quickly added: "Of course, the Dean of the College is from Texas."

I suspect he came here because the quality of students is so high.

Dr. Willis tells me this is an unusual class. I understand very few students who started their senior year failed to make it. This was not so when I was in college. In fact, we had several fellows who had to drop out because of poor eyesight--they mistook the dean of women for a coed.

We had another student whose father admitted his son's college education had been of real value--it stopped his mother from bragging about him.

By the way, I am pleased to see so many parents here tonight. In my day we defined a male parent as "The KIN you love to touch." Perhaps things have changed. But the other day I heard two men talking and one of them said: "Say, I hear your son is in college. How's he making it?" And the other man replied: "He's not. I'm making it. He's spending it." 

I am told some of the professors at Chicago Teachers College North use the honor system. This system was inaugurated at Yale when I was there. I remember the first time we came to class and the professor said: "This exam will be conducted on the honor system. Please take seats three seats apart and in alternate rows."-- And when one student asked another "How near are you to the right answer?” “The answer was--six seats."

Then every senior wanted life, liberty, and a car in which to pursue happiness.

I didn't realize how much time had really passed since I graduated until the other day when I was trying to get my older son to study harder. "When Abraham Lincoln was your age,” I told him, “He walked 10 miles to school every day and then studied by the light of the fire in his log cabin."

"So what?" Bobby answered. "When John Kennedy was your age, he was President." 

I can assure you that I am very aware of the responsibility which is mine to set a pattern for commencement speakers who may follow me here. To that end I intend to break two time-honored precedents at the start.

Number one -- I will be brief. I remember too well the story of the commencement speaker who was just beginning his address when an elderly lady marched down and seated herself directly beneath him in front of the rostrum. She opened up a small kit, assembled the various parts of a rather elaborate hearing mechanism, and attached it to her ears. She listened for ten minutes, suddenly took off the earpieces, unscrewed the mechanism, packed it neatly in its little box, and sat with her hands in her lap throughout the rest of the speech.

Number two -- I flatly refuse to weep over you as inheritors of a work in which my generation has made a mess.

Not that it isn't a mess in places. But I mean to be optimistic, not blind --- optimistic because the opening of frontiers always means movement for-ward, opportunity, excitement, hope. New frontiers ---- not in Washington but around the world are opening today to most of you for the first time.

In generations past it was only the exceptional person who could qualify for a Rhodes or Fulbright Scholarship; it was. only the Phi Beta Kappa, or the fellow who stood first in his class, who could go overseas, learn about the world, its people, its cultures, its languages.

Today with the Peace Corps, the average American who is prepared spiritually, mentally, and physically can enjoy the overseas experience heretofore restricted to few.

For the past year I have been administering an act of faith ---- the Peace Corps. An act of Congress was really an act of faith. And among all of the vital facets of this program, none is more exciting to me than the fact that the Government has here stated its willingness --- no, eagerness --- to place a substantial portion of responsibility for the United States' position overseas in the hands of Volunteers --- men and women like you.

These men and women go as individuals. Their grand business, in Carlyle’s words, "is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies cleary at hand." We select them carefully, of course, and we train them, At campuses all over the country these men and women receive the best instruction available, in the customs and culture of the country they will serve, in its language and its lore. And though we make sure that each Volunteer is articulate and well-informed there is no "brainwashing" in any way. These are free men and women ---moral agents coming from a free and pluralistic society ---- who will illustrate more dramatically our beliefs and principles by intelligent, free dissent than by parrot-like agreement,

If it is true, as Emerson said it is, that "the true civilization is, not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that the country turns out," I want to report to you that in the Peace Corps Volunteer the: United States has passed its acid test.

Some 1300 Volunteers are in training or overseas tonight. That number will grow to approximately 2400 by June 30 and 5000 by January, 1963. Congress has already authorized 10,000 Volunteers within one year from September.

Let me tell you something about these men and women. Sixty percent of them are teachers. Others are nurses, medical technicians, agricultural workers, home economists, vocational training instructors, arts and crafts instructors, engineers, surveyors, and community development workers.

The average age of the men is 24 1/2. For women it is 28. There are 37 married couples.

Eighty-seven Volunteers are from Illinois and about half of that number from Chicago. More will be joining them especially when Chicago teachers learn they can be considered for a two-year leave of absence while serving in the Peace Corps.

Every one of these Volunteers is there at the request of the host country. This is another aspect of faith. Over forty countries of the world -- in Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- have asked us to join them in the task of development. Despite the constantly reiterated charge from Communist sources that we are trying to infiltrate them with spies (one Cuban paper recently made me a former member of CIA), these countries have welcomed our Volunteers and asked for more.

The results so far have more than justified their trust. We are successfully meeting our first purpose: to provide trained manpower where it is needed and wanted.

That’s why I am not going to spend my time here moaning about the state of things. The world is great. The only question is: what are you doing in it?

I said earlier that about sixty per cent of the Peace Corps Volunteers now overseas are serving in a formal teaching position. If you put that fact next to the fact that these countries want more teachers -- and those two facts next to the fact that I am looking at a room-full of newly-qualified teachers, you will begin to sense what I have in mind.

You--- and others like you -- are the objects of our faith. You are the basis of what the New York Times has called "a completely new, official gamble by the United States."

Every one of you graduating seniors ought to volunteer for the Peace Corps.

Let me repeat that: everyone of you graduating seniors ought to volunteer for the Peace Corps....immediately.

Why?

In the first place, you are needed. I think we hear so much in our country that education is the key to our democratic way of life and our technological progress that we either take it for granted or forget it. The new nations of the world are teaching us all over again that Aristotle was right when he said that "all who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." The unrest in the world also underscores – and very dramatically so -- the reality of Samuel's observation that "a mixture of misery and education is highly explosive."

A little education is not enough. A few teachers are not enough. The new nations are racing to build educational systems which will make social progress possible and economic growth attainable. In Ghana alone, 17 schools would not have opened last fall if the Peace Corps had not supplied teachers to help staff them.

I was amazed to learn that over 90% of all the technical writing in the world is available in the English language. This explains why we continue to receive such a flood of requests for teachers of English as a second language. These requests are, only exceeded by those for teachers of science and mathematics -- the foundations for the technical training necessary to develop a competitive society.

The need is apparent....in, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Thailand, Malaya, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and in country after country, you may be the answer to the whispered prayer of an eager child or the direct response to a government's request: "Send us teachers."

This might be enough to lure the sensitive idealist, particularly the one with a dash of romance in his blood.

But romance is not enough. While welcoming sensitivity, while encouraging idealism and imagination, the Peace Corps are much more interested in hard-headed and skilled men and women who regard experience as valuable to all involved. To those people, the peace Corps offers a unique opportunity in continuous education.

And this is my second point -- not only are you needed, you also need what the Peace Corps offers.

A young volunteer in Ghana, a trained teacher, was assigned to teach English literature on the secondary level. She worked -- as all our people do -- under supervision of local, personnel... within the existing framework. In this case the framework was British, left over from Colonial days, and our volunteer was faced with the necessity of teaching the Spectator Papers of Addison and Steele for an entire semester, so many pages per day from beginning to end. It occurred to her that there was very little in the early 18th century London version of the New Yorker which spoke in a meaningful way to the electric current which is Ghana, 1962. During the first two weeks or so, consternation was queen. Teacher and student battled their way through the required pages, but it was clear that neither teaching nor learning was taking place. Our volunteer was approaching despair. She felt shackled to a meaningless round of classes, frustrated, and misused.

Then she changed her tactics. She began to function in the way our selection people had gambled she would. She faced the situation squarely and set about to work within it. Every day she assigned a member of the class to write a Ghanaian Spectator, using the same subject matter mentioned in the British edition. Pretty soon, when Mr. Addison discussed the latest diversions in the coffee-houses of London, the students not only read him, but looked forward to class and additional material from their own daily columnist. Inside of a week, she had her class involved and interested. A girl from the States had bridged the distance between London and Accra. Teaching and learning were in the classroom again.

If I were on the school board in Chicago again, I would certainly like to have that young woman in our, system. I would like to get the science teacher, too, who faced and licked the problem of teaching elementary science with no equipment but a blackboard. I would like the geography teacher who learned about the terrain of East Africa by exploring it in his spare time instead of merely reading it out of a text book.

I could go on with more examples to illustrate this single point: Peace Corps service as a teacher presents a challenging and rewarding education. It is this education which the Peace Carps gives to its members which justifies graduates of this Teachers College in joining the Peace Carps. Even though Chicago may lose your services for two years, when you return you will be a much more exciting and useful teacher to the Chicago public school system as a result of Peace Corps experience. In fact, I will state as an absolute statement of truth that every teacher who serves in the Peace Corps overseas will return to the public classrooms of America a more mature and interesting, a more exciting and popular, a more successful teacher.

Let's say you decide to serve. What will be the attitude of the counselors whose advice you seek? Will the familiar cry be raised: "Don't go. The teacher shortage at home is already acute;" of "Don't go. You're a chemistry teacher -- what good will two years in Chile do you?"

Happily, the chances are that this will not be the counsel you receive -- not here in Chicago particularly. The educational world as represented by men like Dr. Willis and by its local boards and supervisors is giving marvelous support for teachers in overseas service. A number of school boards have announced their determination to give two year leaves to teachers serving in the Peace Corps, many including regular pay increases and tenure, They look upon this as the investment of a teacher in specialized training and the development of a cadre to carry the growing curriculum in international education in elementary and secondary schools back at home. A temporary loss, of minor proportions in any one system, becomes a future gain.

Teachers' colleges as well, are joining with us in realizing that they have much to give and much to gain through association with Peace Corps projects. Jointly, we are developing projects in which volunteers may receive academic credit as a result of training and supervised teaching while with the Peace Corps. The first such arrangement will go into effect in July at the University of Ohio, where volunteers who will be teaching in the Cameroons will begin their training.

There is much which an institution such as this can do in addition to continuing to produce fine classes, such as this first model. Is there room, for instance, for more preparation for international awareness in the curriculum? We are still behind the time in teaching other than Western civilization. And that teaching must be more than dates and facts; it must be a whole shift in cultural orientation. Writing recently in Educational Leadership, Dr. Robert C. Hammock says that aid is needed, "and, for teachers, the aid must come--quickly, substantially, and intelligently--in programs of education for prospective teachers now in college and for experienced teachers now in service."

What about the new demands for education to teach English as a second language? We have not enough trained people to answer the need both at home and abroad. I submit that a service could be done by wider inclusion of this discipline as a major. 

And, most important, insofar as we teach for accreditation, do we further that reinforce policies which are designed to answer local problems well but restrict the use of experience acquired overseas? Specifically, we need to know how professional education will make use of the experience and breadth gained by a teacher in the Peace Corps. What equations and equivalents can be made, what tests or measurements devised which will identify useful experience and put it to work?

Many of those teaching in the Peace Corp are not professional teachers. Yet their Peace Corps experience will lead some to choose teaching as a career. This is one of the ways by which we hope to give more than we ever take from the educational community. But there is a way in which these returning volunteers can be fitted to professional education without unnecessary repetition of experience and knowledge? These methods must be found if we are to avoid the paradox of no room available in a system crying for new teachers. I hope other school systems throughout the country will follow the lead of Dr. Willis and Chicago in making it possible for these teachers -- resourceful, reliant, committed, and concerned -- to work their way into our classrooms.

In Ghana, where our volunteers are working as teachers in secondary schools, three have been appointed to serve as assistant headmasters of their schools. They were elected by their peers -- all native Ghanaians. These actions were approved by the Ghanaian Ministry of Education. Three white Peace Corps Volunteers were selected by their African co-workers to serve as leaders in the school! This -- in the wake of decades of colonialism and the rising tempo of African nationalism.

Here is the flavor of the old frontier which vanished into the Pacific years ago. If the journey to the far off frontier in distant and new lands demands a return of hard work and dedication that is what the old frontier also demanded of most of the Americans who went there.

I am satisfied you have the willing hands, the compassionate hearts, and the keen heads to do today what your pioneering forefathers did a century ago.

You are the new pioneers and I salute you.