Address to St. John's University

Jamaica, NY | June 13, 1965

The reality of terms, words, names, comes out of particulars, directly experienced- - irrevocably experienced.

Most of you have had a chance to see the pictures taken of Ed White, the Astronaut, walking in space — floating out there above the clouds catching glimpses of the earth below — and all around him a sky of stars and brilliant blackness, purple and deep blue.

It reminded me of a famous geography lesson in literature — one which starts:

There was a picture of the earth on the first page of his geography: a big ball in the middle of clouds.

He opened the geography to study the lesson, but he could not learn the names. ...There were all different places that had all different names. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe.

He turned to the fly leaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

  • Stephen Dedalus
  • Class of '65; St. John's University
  • New York City
  • The United States
  • North America
  • The World
  • The Universe

Symbolically, the rest of your lives will likely be spent — in coming to grips with that geography lesson — in trying to establish a relationship between that name on your diploma and the world about you — step by step — in a never-widening geographical and spiritual orbit.

Names, words, terms, jargons — the things you hate learned by rote — that you have been schooled to spew back at just the right moment in just the right way — they must become real. They must take on meaning. And in becoming real, they will change both you — and the world around you.

We have a saying, though, in the Peace Corps which I think applies to this next step in your education—the one that is now commencing:

"If you want to change the world, start small."

For it is only in the context of the concrete, the immediate, even the trivial—that the big words — words like justice and opportunity and humanity will take on meaning.

As T. S. Eliot put it in the Four Quartets:

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Step by step, proceeding from the tangible, the small, the immediate we will learn at once the oldest and the newest of meanings for words that have now lost all meaning.

Take words like civil rights, or racial discrimination. Did we, as a nation, really understand what those words meant until demonstrations brought us into contact with concrete instances where Negro patrons were allowed to purchase food, but not to eat it on the premises or where they were allowed to eat it standing up, but not sitting down or to eat it at the stool counter, but not in booths?

Did we really understand the hypocrisy of separate but equal until we learned of instances — where, if the "white" men's room had a mixing hot and cold water tap, the "colored" men's room had separate taps? 

Or another instance—actually recorded in a court case—where a drugstore would not serve Negroes Coca-Cola, even though it would serve them Pepsi-Cola?

It is when we begin with the trivial—the small—when our sense of injustice is engaged and aroused — that equality takes on meaning and we seize what President Johnson has called: the glorious opportunity of this generation—to end the one huge wrong of the American nation—and in so doing to find America for ourselves with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped those who first began to realize that there, at last, was a home for freedom.

The same sense of discovery, of renewal is there—waiting—in the War Against Poverty.

It is fashionable now to talk about "gateless poverty" and about opening doors to opportunity.

But what does this really mean? Lucy Starr Norman—a 22-year-old VISTA volunteer from Piedmont, New York, found out when a Mexican-American mother in La Colonia, California, asked her to start a nursery school. As the mother put it: It would be helpful because the children get restless and cranky when we lock them in the cars all day while we cut grapes.

We talk about the culturally deprived—as if we knew what that meant-and then find ourselves shocked, when

—three weeks ago, we received a report that one of the teenage boys in the Job Corps had just learned that Abraham Lincoln was dead

—or when, we are told, that one VISTA volunteer is working with children who don't know the difference between a frog and a turtle, or between green and blue.

We talk about poverty as a "sociological and economic condition afflicting 35 million Americans."

But we don't really begin to know what it means until a girl who applies to enter the Job Corps writes: "I do not get to eat but onetime a day. I am so glad when night comes, I do not know what to do."

The reality of terms, words, names, comes out of particulars, directly experienced — irrevocably experienced.

We talk about poverty on Indian reservations — and an image comes to mind of teepees and hand-woven rugs — and picturesque tribal dances. But then we hear the story of a Sioux Indian, Mrs. Cross-Dog—arrested, jailed and charged with passing a fraudulent check. The reason: in order to obtain credit to buy groceries, she had had to sign a blank check on a bank where she had no account. She was delinquent in her payment. The husband—a disabled veteran worked four to five months to pay off the debt—but then was told by the merchant that the debt was still outstanding. The check was deposited. It bounced. And Mrs. Cross-Dog was arrested.

We talk about relief roles and welfare cases—and how the poor prefer to be lazy and receive public assistance.

But then we hear about a mother of 7 children from Oakland, California, whose source of income was public assistance.  The roof of her apartment burned off due to faulty wiring. On reporting this to the welfare authorities, she found that they took prompt remedial action. They cut off her check. The reason: because she and her children were now living in "unsuitable housing."

We talk about Appalachia. It makes poverty sound more real. It gives it a geographic location. But have we really learned our geography lesson until we hear this story of a coal miner who, up until a few weeks ago, lived in a small town in Eastern Kentucky.  

He was one of a number of miners who were let down into a hole in the ground about two feet across—by a rope. Each miner wears a mining hat, and carries a small handpick. Once down in the mine, they crawl up the ends of old coal veins to pick away at the remains of coal that were too hard to get twenty years ago, piling the pieces of coal in small boxes, and then-carrying them back to the hole to be hauled up to the surface on the same rope by which they were let down.

The miner who described his job had been working in that mine for five years. Today, he is seventeen years old.

The geography lesson we have to learn today starts with bare brutal facts like those —that the industrial working conditions of nineteenth century England are not 140 years away. They are only 100 miles away from the nation's capitol.

The geography lesson does not stop at the U.S. border.

And as with Stephen Dedalus, we expand outward—we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be an American. And from the streets of the Dominican Republic comes this definition: In Santo Domingo—a city carved up into zones by barricades the words "Cuerpo de Paz" will open any barrier, will gain immediate entry for any Peace Corps volunteer.

Why? One volunteer found out when he was in rebel territory and heard one of them say: "El malditos Americanos (those very bad Americans)." So he asked them, "What are you talking about? I am an American!"

And the answer he got was: "We don't mean you, You're different. You live with us. When we're hungry—you're hungry. When we walk through the mud—you walk through the mud."

That volunteer has found a new meaning for the word American—that geography lesson is taking hold for the first time.

But beyond that—what does it mean to be a citizen of the world? Because your address is:

  • Stephen Dedalus
  • Class of '65
  • The United States
  • North America
  • The World.


For Michael Sellon, a returned Peace 'Corps volunteer—the answer came like this: It was a matter of Becoming, in mind and even more in spirit, those very people we had come to help. Speaking for all volunteers, he said that when our educative experiences became complete, we felt like Dominicans, reacted like Tanzanians, and even often suffered like Thais. Such total involvement is very hard to find in contemporary education, he said, yet it is undoubtedly central to learning.

This is the geography lesson that you must, now begin. In the trade, it is called experiential education. In reality, it is a voyage of the soul. You must learn to see teachers, new teachers where others have seen only—

  • Foreigners
  • Peasants
  • Backward
  • Natives
  • Hillbillies
  • Negroes 
  • Indians
  • poor white trash and even the so-called culturally deprived

Those must be your mentors for this new journey. But there are others in our midst who have come to this country on a similar mission—to become citizens of the world—who look to us to be their mentors on their journey of the soul.

In reading the quotation from Portrait of An Artist, I left out one line: He opened the geography to study the lesson; but he could not learn the names of places in America. Still they were all different places that had different names.

There are foreigners-fellow citizens of the world-who have come to our shore to master that geography lesson—to make those strange unknowable names—New York, and Albuquerque, and Wichita, take on new meaning—to find a relationship between themselves and the world about them.

And you, I think, are aware of what happens to them all too often. They came to encounter reality—but too often they have found that the price of entry into this country is seclusion, isolation. And in university after university, I have seen ghettos arise—a kind of segregation—partly self-imposed out of fear but partly enforced from without by our own parochialness.

And you, too, I am sure have seen those small foreign colonies that spring up in colleges and universities—groups bound together, not necessarily by common ties and language—but by a common difference: their sense of being outsiders. These fellow human beings—here on our invitation, here to become citizens of the world: are being herded into small, confining experiences. And for them, the names that they could not learn before will only become places where they visited and felt unwanted and alien—places where they were forced to choose between isolated study or tourism. We have made them strangers on sufferance—in a world where—as Ed White knows well—all of us exist on sufferance.

It is time for us to be more inventive in our handling of foreign students.

Let me suggest one institutional invention that could take place right here in the New York metropolitan area. Here in the world's greatest cosmopolitan center we certainly ought to be able to create a program through which foreign students and American counterparts-especially returned Peace Corps volunteers—could live and work and learn together—a program of "experiential education" that would teach both the foreign and American students to become broader and more effective citizens of the world.

I have in mind an International Education Center that would bring together for a limited time—about an equal number of foreign students and American students. Some would come for a year, some for a semester, some for a shorter period for a seminar like the successful Salzburg Seminar in Europe. They would live together either at the center or out in the community. They would live and learn together both at the center and through participation in the cultural, social, and political life of New York.

The curriculum would combine academic diet of courses, seminars and guest lectures, with experience out in the community.

The exchange would go both ways—and on many levels--cultural exchange, linguistic assistance, scholarly endeavor, political discourse.

Out of this might begin to grow an awareness of the frustrations, the under-utilization, the sources of alienation that have made foreign exchange programs into intellectual tourism.

This pilot operation should not be too expensive; I hope it can be privately financed. Since the physical sciences would not be included, no special laboratories would be necessary. Instead, the whole city of New York would be the center's laboratory. Colleges and universities in the New York area should cooperate, so that their resources would not have to be duplicated.

Someday, a special center could be constructed, with all the built-in features of modern teaching technology, including closed-current television and other audio-visual equipment. Arrangements could be made for work at this center to receive academic credit from the colleges and universities to which the Center's students would go upon completion of a semester or two semesters work at the Center. A counseling and testing service at the Center would advise the students, both foreign and American, on the next steps in their education and career.

Who will be the Americans interested in studying and working at such a Center? I hope some of you will be. I am sure many returning Peace Corps volunteers would be. They are returning with a thirst for knowledge about their own country, particularly about its social problems and social processes. Their overseas experience and their awakened curiosity would make them sympathetic counterparts for the foreign students. Such a period of studies by returned volunteers would give them a chance to sort out their foreign experience, to begin to communicate it, and to decide how best to apply it in American life or in further international service.

What I am sketching goes beyond a pilot Center. It is really a system that takes the experience of the Peace Corps abroad and applies it to America, using foreign students here as a prime resource. It is a system of two-way traffic between America and the world—of two-way volunteering and service and learning.

To serve that purpose genuinely—would require us to stretch the notion of the university. The Peace Corps has sometimes been called a university in dispersion. But between the totally self-contained academic ivory tower—and the Peace Corps lies a continuum of possibilities.

This very university, with its forthcoming training program for Peace Corps teachers in the West Indies lies somewhere between those poles.

So, too, does the University of Western Michigan which is now launching a special five-year program for its students which will include a year abroad in the Peace Corps.

So, too, somewhere along that continuum, are those universities which are participating in running Job Corps centers—which are utilizing those centers as a laboratory of learning. The center that I am proposing would also be another hybrid creature-neither wholly academic—nor merely a point of debarkation for foreign students participating in a reverse Peace Corps.

But part of the central concept and vision of such a center would be to provide for each student the opportunity to contribute concretely—with their total being--to the welfare of the community that surrounds them. For that community must become, in some sense their own if they are to become citizens of the world.

Built into each individual's experience must be an occasion for giving a task of humanity an act of sharing and sacrifice which would, in miniature, constitute a contribution such as that described by Bud Weisbart, a volunteer from Thailand:

In Kanachanaburi, a neighboring province, there is a cemetery for Allied soldiers who died while building the bridge over the Kwai (rhymes with way, not why) River. On one of the headstones the following is written: "Into the mosaic of victory this precious piece was placed." I feel that we here are doing a job and placing pieces into the mosaic of mutual understanding, and that understanding in turn will occupy a place in a mosaic of a peaceful world.

This proposal for a center is a dream—a vision—but it can become a reality just as the Peace Corps did—if we are prepared to will it into existence.

We need to do so—out of fairness to those Stephen Dedaluses who come to our shores.

They, like you have all learned the names in the geography lesson by rote.

It is time to make that geography lesson—the one which Stephen Dedalus did not understand—into a reality.

For, on this day—the time has come—as it came to Stephen Dedalus—when he made this entry into his diary: I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

For each of you—and indeed, for this society—and all its great institutions of learning— that time has come —to reach out into anew relationship with the world about us—to seek to recast our lives in the image of art—to make the leap forward into the unknown. And in doing so, to entrust our immortal souls to the protection of our Maker—perhaps in Stephen Dedalus closing words—words of irreverent reverence:

Old father, old artificer, stand us now, and ever, good stead.