John F. Kennedy photo

Address at the Boston College Centennial Ceremonies

April 20, 1963

Father Walsh, Your Eminence, Governor Peabody, members of the faculty, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure to come back to a city where my accent is considered normal, and where they pronounce the words the way they are spelled !

I take especial satisfaction in this day. As the recipient of an honorary degree in 1956 from Boston College, and therefore an instant alumnus, I am particularly pleased to be with all of you on this most felicitous occasion.

This university, or college, as Father Walsh has described, was founded in the darkest days of the Civil War, when this Nation was engaged in a climactic struggle to determine whether it would be half slave and half free or all free. And now, 100 years later, after the most intense century perhaps in human history, we are faced with the great question of whether this world will be half slave and half free, or whether it will be all one or the other. And on this occasion, as in 1863, the services of Boston College are still greatly needed.

It is good also to participate in this ceremony which has honored three distinguished citizens of the free world--President Pusey, Father Bunn, and our friend from the world of freedom, Lady Jackson.

Boston College is a hundred years old-old by the life span of men, but young by that of universities. In this week of observance, you have rightly celebrated the achievements of the past, and equally rightly you have turned in a series of discussions by outstanding scholars to the problems of the present and the future. Learned men have been talking here of the knowledge explosion, and in all that they have said I am sure they have implied the heavy present responsibility of institutions like this one. Yet today I want to say a word on the same theme, to impress upon you as urgently as I can the growing and insistent importance of universities in our national life.

I speak of universities because that is what Boston College has long since become. But most of what I say applies to liberal arts colleges as well. My theme is not limited to any one class of universities, public or private, religious or secular. Our national tradition of variety in higher education shows no sign of weakening, and it remains the task of each of our institutions to shape its own role among its differing sisters.

In this hope I am much encouraged by a reading in this last week of the remarkable encyclical, "Pacem in Terris." In its penetrating analysis of today's great problems, of social welfare and human rights, of disarmament and international order and peace, that document surely shows that on the basis of one great faith and its traditions there can be developed counsel on public affairs that is of value to all men and women of good will. As a Catholic I am proud of it; and as an American I have learned from it. It only adds to the impact of this message that it closely matches notable expressions of conviction and aspiration from churchmen of other faiths, as in recent documents of the World Council of Churches, and from outstanding world citizens with no ecclesiastical standing. We are learning to talk the language of progress and peace across the barriers of sect and creed. It seems reasonable to hope that a similar process may be taking place across the quite different barriers of higher learning.

From the office that I hold, in any case, there can be no doubt today of the growing meaning of universities in America. That, of course, is one basic reason for the increasing urgency with which those who care most for the progress of our society are pressing for more adequate programs in higher education and in education generally. It is for this reason that I urge upon everyone here and in this country the pressing need for national attention and a national decision in the national interest upon the national question of education. In at least four ways, the new realities of our day have combined to intensify the focal role of the university in our Nation's life.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the whole world has come to our doorstep and the universities must be its student. In the strange geometry of modern politics, the distant Congo can be as close to us as Canada, and Canada, itself, is worth more attention than we have sometimes given. Cultures not our own press for understanding. Crises we did not create require our participation. Accelerating change is the one universal human prospect. The universities must help.

Second, there is indeed an explosion of knowledge and its outward limits are not yet in sight. In some fields, progress seems very fast; in others, distressingly slow. It is no tribute to modern science to jump lightly to the conclusion that all its secrets of particle physics, of molecular life, of heredity, of outer space, are now within easy reach. The truth is more massive and less magical. It is that wherever we turn, in defense, in space, in medicine, in industry, in agriculture, and most of all in basic science, itself, the requirement is for better work, deeper understanding, higher education. And while I have framed this comment in the terms of the natural sciences, I insist, as do all those who live in this field, that at every level of learning there must be an equal concern for history, for letters and the arts, and for man as a social being in the widest meaning of Aristotle's phrase. This also is the work of the university.

And third, as the world presses in and knowledge presses out, the role of the interpreter grows. Men can no longer know everything themselves; the 20th century has no universal man. All men today must learn to know through one another--to judge across their own ignorance--to comprehend at second hand. These arts are not easily learned. Those who would practice them must develop intensity of perception, variety of mental activity, and the habit of open concern for truth in all its forms. Where can we expect to find a training ground for this modern maturity, if not in our universities?

Fourth and finally, these new requirements strengthen still further what has always been a fundamental element in the life of American colleges and universities--that they should be dedicated to "the Nation's service." The phrase is Woodrow Wilson's, and no one has discussed its meaning better. What he said in 1896 is more relevant today than ever before, and I close with a quotation from him.

I offer it to you with renewed congratulations, and in the confident hope that as the second century opens, Boston College will continue to respond--as she did in her beginnings-to the new needs of the age.

"It is not learning," said President Wilson, "but the spirit of service that will give a college place in the public annals of the Nation." "It is indispensable," he said, "if it is to do its right service, that the air of affairs should be admitted to all its classrooms... the air of the world's transactions, the consciousness of the solidarity of the race, the sense of the duty of man toward man . . . the promise and the hope that shine in the face of all knowledge .... The days of glad expansion are gone, our life grows tense and difficult; our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy; and the school must be of the Nation."

Boston College for too years has been of the Nation and so it will be for the next hundred.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:45 p.m. in Alumni Stadium on the college campus at Newton, Mass. His opening words referred to the Reverend Michael P. Walsh, S.J., President of Boston College; His Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston; and Governor Endicott Peabody of Massachusetts. Later he referred to Nathan N. Pusey, President of Harvard University; the Very Reverend Edward B. Bunn, S.J., President of Georgetown University; and Lady Barbara Ward Jackson, noted British writer--all of whom were awarded honorary degrees by Boston College.

APP NOTE: The note above is reproduced as originally published in the Public Papers. William Doss Suter, a planner at Harvard University, has supplied this additional information about the location of this speech: "The Boston College campus straddles the border of Newton, MA and Boston, with the "upper campus" in Newton, and the "lower campus" in Boston. The stadium in which JFK delivered his 1963 centennial address was constructed in 1957 on the lower campus (i.e., in Boston). Its precursor, also called Alumni Stadium was on the upper campus (i.e., Newton). That is where in 1956, as Senator, JFK delivered a commencement address and received an honorary degree--referenced in this 1963 speech.

John F. Kennedy, Address at the Boston College Centennial Ceremonies Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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