The Responsibility of Youth


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the 190th Commencement of Columbia University, New York City, June 6, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 561-562.

THE rebuilding of this broken world will be neither easy nor short. As the years pass, it will fall to the youth of today to take the leading part in the far-reaching reconstruction which must follow the war. This is why the education which is now being given to youth is of such vital importance. It is particularly true of that liberal education which leads the way to knowledge and to understanding as nothing else can possibly do.

In order to understand what is now happening or to foresee what is likely to happen, one must know first of all thoroughly and well what has happened. The record of human ambition and accomplishment in the past is the key to open the door of that epoch-marking future which lies just ahead of us.

The center of civilization has been moving steadily westward for more than twenty-five hundred years. It is, therefore, the history of that civilization as it was recorded in Greece, in Rome and in Europe during the Middle Ages which is so essential to an appreciation of the forces, tendencies and aims which rule the world of today. It is liberal education as given in the best type of American college which alone will provide the training and the knowledge that youth must have in order to play its vital part in the world of tomorrow. Given that liberal education, then with open mind, with vision and with courage youth may go forward to constructive leadership. Youth must be optimistic. Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and of true progress.

One of the misfortunes of a democratic system of government is the difficulty of finding representatives of the people in executive or in legislative office who will be guided in their thought and official action solely by sound principles, with little or no regard to the possibility of their not being reelected to that public office which they may hold. It is the duty of the chosen representatives of the people in a democracy, truly to represent the fullest knowledge and the highest ideals of their time and not merely the selfish ambitions and preferences of specialized pressure groups. The history of democracy in the United States offers many illustrations of the fact that even though a representative in government who is of the highest type may differ at the moment from what appears to be the opinion of his constituents, he can, nevertheless, carry them with him by persuasive argument and clearness of vision. The task of a representative of the people in a democracy is not to bow down to the lower and more selfish forms of what is called public opinion, but to guide and inspire that public opinion so that it may rise to constantly higher levels. Our own history abounds in illustrations of the great effectiveness of this course of conduct. In particular, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln reflected in their lives and public service this fundamental fact. Properly to represent the people, one must represent them on the highest level to which they can rise instead of descending to the lowest level which the happenings of the moment may record. Reelection to public office may be without special significance, while accomplishment of high purposes and sound principles is of vital importance.

We Americans are indeed fortunate in having possessed in our relatively short history an exceptional number of outstanding captains of the political mind. Students of today who will read the history of the personality and accomplishment of Samuel Adams, of Benjamin Franklin, of George Washington, of Alexander Hamilton, of Thomas Jefferson, of James Madison, of Henry Clay, of Daniel Webster and of Abraham Lincoln will gain both guidance and stimulus toward effective public service. A chosen representative of the people whether in the executive or the legislative branch of government should and, if he is to be truly efficient, must keep in close personal relationship with his constituents. He must ascertain from them what acts and polices they wish him to support. He should also explain to them the acts and policies which he, himself, advocates and give his reasons forso doing. It is a grave weakening of democratic organization when there is a breach between the people and their chosen representatives, or when those chosen representatives fail to inform and to guide and truly to serve their constituents. It is these lessons which the youth of today must learn, since—and it cannot be repeated too often—they will in the very near future be called upon to take a controlling part in the conduct of the government of the American people, local, state and federal. They cannot take this great responsibility too seriously and they cannot begin too soon to prepare themselves to discharge it.

It must be remembered that to participate in a democratic government it is by no means necessary that one hold public office. One should always take active part in the work of selecting candidates for legislative and executive office—local, state and federal—as well as in framing the declarations of policy and principle which are to guide these public officers when they shall have been elected. Public office is a public trust, but participation in the choice of public officers and in the formulation of public policy is also a personal obligation which rests upon every citizen.

The government of our people has been built upon the foundation of sound and easily understood principles. It has been protected and developed in amazing fashion for more than a century and a half. What will be its story during the next century? Only the youth of today and tomorrow can give the answer to that question. May they give it with fullness of knowledge, clearness of vision and outstanding courage.