New York University Commencement

New York City | June 10, 1964

I ask you today, therefore, for your total commitment. An all-University project to end the cycle of poverty in New York is within the intellectual and spiritual power of this, the largest private educational institution in the world. I ask you today to extend the work you have already started -- to make this city your laboratory -- and to show us the way.


This is an election year, and it seems appropriate therefore to talk politics. But politics in its full sense goes far beyond primaries or even general elections. The root of the word politics is polis — the Greek word for the City, or City State. A politician in ancient times was supposed to serve the City. And "serving the City" in that ancient sense is the same as serving the nation and even mankind today. That is the kind of politics we need now — the politics of service.

This is the kind of politics that Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated in India. He chose to live and work among the poor and always rode the third class trains with the poor. He rode third class, he said, because there was no fourth class. At first, people laughed at him when he called on the Indian people to vote for independence with their feet — by joining him in his famous salt march to the sea. But this kind of politics of deeds, not words, overturned the British Empire in India.

The politics of service is also a creative kind of politics. It built the State of Israel, farm by farm, kibbutz by kibbutz, town by town. Those pioneers in Palestine, working with their hands, started little islands of the twentieth century that turned Death Valleys into green gardens.

The American labor movement understands this politics of service. Millions of men and women have "voted" for unions with their feet — on the picket lines. And then they have gone on to create, with their own resources, union programs of health care, education and cooperative housing.

Martin Luther King rose on the American scene like a star in the night when he led thousands of Americans in the Montgomery bus boycott. They were "voting" for full human rights with their feet. An old woman who walked for miles to work rather than be segregated on a bus was asked by a newspaperman if she wasn't tired. "My feet are tired," she said, "but my soul is resting."

This is also the politics of the Peace Corps. Sixty-two men and women from this university have become Peace Corps Volunteers. They are often tired. But they have been "voting" for peace with their feet, their hands, their heads, and their hearts, standing in the classrooms, assisting in hospitals, working in village action programs in forty-six countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Take Al Estrin, who received his B.S. in Engineering here at N.Y.U. He served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia. Al is now on the Peace Corps staff as an associate director in Brazil. But behind him are two years of volunteer service in which he helped the mountain people of Colombia build a bridge with his designs and with their joint labor — he helped them build schools, aqueducts to bring water. He was working for peace through this politics of service. Al wasn't just building a cement or brick bridge with those people in Colombia. He and they were building a bridge of understanding.

I can testify to the effectiveness of this work. I have seen these men and women on the job. Last year in Addis Ababa, I visited the classroom of one of your graduates, Neil Boyer, who received his law degree here. He volunteered to teach in Ethiopia, to be one of three hundred Peace Corps Volunteers who overnight doubled the number of qualified high school teachers in Ethiopia — making possible the enrollment of five thousand additional Ethiopian students, potential leaders in Ethiopia's future. When the Ethiopian Government insisted that in his second year of service, Neil should do legal work instead of teaching, his headmaster fought to keep him in the classroom, saying that Neil was the best teacher he had.

These very robes I am wearing today are evidence of the effectiveness of the service of Peace Corps Volunteers. They were given to me by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, the oldest and largest university in Asia, when they bestowed an honorary degree of political science on me in recognition of the extraordinary work performed by the 265 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Thailand.

On that occasion, the Foreign Minister of Thailand called the Peace Corps "the most powerful idea in recent times." He said it was "striking that this important idea...of youth mingling, living, working with youth, should come from the mightiest nation on earth." People in the world "did not know that in the United States ideas and ideals are also powerful," he said. "This is the, secret of your greatness."

The secret of the Peace Corps' success is the secret of this politics of service,. Yes, it is the idea and the ideals of the Peace Corps that are the secret of its success — and of all our ideals none surpasses the importance of service. Peace Corps service is a practical way "to convert our good words into good deeds," our ideas into action. That is what John Kennedy promised America would do. Our greatness depends upon doing it, upon practicing this new kind of politics, on an even larger scale, in the world and at home.

The Peace Corps is out in the world serving the larger city we now live in, the City of Man. For Peace Corps Volunteers that city of the world has become a real community. They have learned how much people everywhere have in common, across the barriers of color and languages, but more important, they have learned to hear the voice of the human heart, in any language.

When President Kennedy died, the Volunteers everywhere heard that human voice, "Our President is dead!" Those were the words with which an Iranian fellow-worker in the countryside of Iran, his eyes full of tears, brought the news of November 22nd to one of our Peace Corps Volunteers. In that night, all around the world, Africans and Asians and Latin Americans knocked on the doors of Peace Corps Volunteers, saying that they, too were grieving. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, expressed it this way to me: He said, "This was the first world-wide mourning in the history of man."

The Volunteers did not lose touch with America during these two years in foreign lands. Instead, they discovered how closely America and the rest of the world have become linked.

Now the Volunteers are starting to come home. By the end of this summer, three thousand will be back. More than half of them are returning to American universities, most of them for graduate work. Some will be coming back right here to N.Y.U. But they will not be the same men and women who left. Here is what one Volunteer in Ethiopia wrote to his parents recently. "I have changed, and those who came with me have changed. Whatever we were before, and none of us can quite remember, that's all gone." "Peace Corps life," he writes, "tempers one by its sheer and irresistible intensity." We look forward to coming home, he wrote, but "missing" will be ''the adventure, the thrill that none of us will ever be able to live again with such intensity, such freedom." In meeting their responsibilities of service, he said, "We found a kind of freedom greater than any we could have imagined."

But why should this kind of freedom — the freedom that comes from service — be missing in our lives at home? Is it true that it can only come in serving the larger City of the World, and not in serving the City of New York?

President Johnson has declared War on Poverty. Congress, we trust, will soon give us the ammunition. But the people who are going, to wage this war are not in Washington. They are already living on the front lines of poverty — right in the centers of our cities. It is here at N.Y.U., at your campus on Washington Square, in that most cosmopolitan neighborhood of the greatest city the world has ever known, that the war has to be waged.

But to win this war on the home front we shall require the help of this most cosmopolitan University. You must recognize your place on the front lines and give us the home front leadership and action we need.

I call upon the faculty and student body of New York University to practice the politics of service here at home in your own neighborhood. Not by more courses in responsibility or in American social problems. Not by lectures. Not by commencement talks. But by political action in this true sense of politics, in service of your city.

Is this subverting the life of the University? — To suggest that you take the blocks around you, this great city as your laboratory, that you do your research in the service of the people you live among, that you make community action programs to end poverty in New York a focus of your study and the center of your extracurricular activities?

Remember what this University was founded for —133 years ago: To be a school in which "The children of the artisan and the tradesman should be as welcome as the children of the rich," But you are all rich — rich in education, the key to the twentieth century — or you wouldn't be here today. But the poor for whom this university was founded are out in the night, in the streets, in the overcrowded schools needing extra teachers, in the hospitals needing extra help, in the settlement houses needing volunteers.

They need your help. We need your help. We need men and women. We need hundreds of thousands — millions of men and women – who will work in these programs and start new programs of their own. For this we need the manpower and the brainpower, we need the service of the colleges and universities of America.

The Peace Corps Volunteers are coming home with a head of steam, with new determination to convert America's good words into good deeds. For them poverty is not invisible. They have lived in it — they have worked with people in other parts of the world to eliminate it. They will see it in America, and they will see no excuse for it. And they will be right. They know we can win the war. And they are ready to do their part. In a poll of the first returning Volunteers, four out of five said they were interested in working to end poverty, and thirty percent said they were ready to volunteer, part-time or full-time, right away. A Peace Corps Volunteer, a white boy from Alabama, last week volunteered to teach in an all-Negro slum school in Washington, D.C.

Soon there will be ten thousand Peace Corps Volunteers. But the Peace Corps barely scratches the surface of our needs. There are a half a million college graduates this year alone. What about them? What kind of blood runs in their veins? Are they learning to serve? Are they ready to practice the politics of service?

If you expect the Peace Corps Volunteers to carry the major burden for the war on poverty at home, then you'll make all of us connected with the Peace Corps feel like Lady Astor on the sinking ship, Titanic. As the iceberg crashed through the ship's walls, she said, "I asked the waiter for ice, but this is ridiculous."

No, the returning Peace Corps Volunteers are not the answer. They can help. But American higher, education, two million strong, must carry the main load. With nearly fifty thousand students and faculty, this university alone overshadows the whole Peace Corps in its resources and potential power.

N.Y.U. of all universities should know that this is the New Frontier required of American education. Once society was able to send men off to the cloisters to learn. The education of man took place in ivory towers on university heights that were far from the scene of action. But N.Y.U., like modern man, has no such escape.

Poverty is like an iceberg, and it is moving against your walls. Although submerged, cold and impersonal, it can crash into our lives. When a professor is attacked on a city street, when a gang holds up a subway car, when a bystander is killed in a riot, when little girls are bombed in a church, we suddenly feel one cutting edge of poverty.

Poverty is like an iceberg. It chills us, it freezes our hearts, it makes us cold and impersonal. It is so frightening that we turn our eyes away from the human constituents of poverty, the men without jobs, the mothers without a man or money, the children on the streets. These are the ones who feel the sharpest edge of poverty.

The worst news story of the year was the murder of a woman in New York who could have been saved by onlookers. But not one of thirty-eight witnesses came to her aid, not one raised a hand, not one even uttered a cry or called the police until it was all over. No one was ready to go out into the night: No one felt responsible!

When we reach this pit, this bottom, there can be no way but up. The way up and out will not be easy. I am not bringing you the answers. We do not yet know all that needs to be known to get at the root of poverty. But we know that it can be done. We know that President Kennedy spoke the truth when he said that "Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." We know that having the power to eliminate poverty, as day follows night, we have the duty to do it.

When America faced the unprecedented problem of splitting the atom, it turned to the American academic community, to some of our greatest universities. No one knew how to make an atom bomb. Einstein knew more than anyone else — yet even Einstein could only say "It can be done."

So the Manhattan Project tried something new in our public life. With no time to waste it experimented with several approaches, simultaneously. It took two main routes, one the plutonium route, one the route of uranium U-235, and it tried variations on each. And as the major laboratory investigator of each approach it contracted with a major university. The University of Chicago worked on plutonium. Berkeley worked on separating the uranium isotope through the electromagnetic approach, using the cyclotron. Columbia worked on splitting uranium through another method, gaseous diffusion. Columbia also worked, with Princeton, on the centrifuge approach that didn't work and was dropped. And fifteen or twenty other universities played key parts.

We all know the results. The first chain reaction took place at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. The first nuclear reaction took place at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. These events, the product of the service of American universities in time of war, changed the world.

Now we are engaged in a peacetime struggle, but one that is also a matter of life and death for our cities — and for millions of our people. In the war on poverty we don't have time to waste. That is why we are going to turn to our universities again. That is why we are asking your great university to accept this new challenge.

I know that several of your schools or divisions have started programs to serve the poor in New York. But we must ask for more. The President's task force of the war on poverty has already come to this University's School of Education to ask its help in training two hundred special teachers and counselors this summer, who will work in conservation camps next year.

I know the great traditions of this University. I know your President, and the fiber of which he is made. And I am confident that where others may be faint-hearted, N.Y.U. will not fail.

I ask you today, therefore, for your total commitment. An all-University project to end the cycle of poverty in New York is within the intellectual and spiritual power of this, the largest private educational institution in the world. I ask you today to extend the work you have already started — to make this city your laboratory — and to show us the way.

If you do this and do it with all the resources at your command then future generations will say that the problem of poverty was cracked, and that a chain reaction of progress was started here on University Heights and on Washington Square.

As you confront this unprecedented problem, as we bring our united efforts to bear on its solution, we can take strength from the words of John Kennedy, who said:

"All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."