“AN OPEN LETTER TO AMERICA’S STUDENTS”
By Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of Columbia University
From The Reader’s Digest Assoc., Inc. (October 1948 issue)
General Dwight D. Eisenhower here writes to young Americans. It will pay all Americans to “listen in.”
I receive many letters from young people. Mostly they ask a question that could be put like this:
Shall I keep on with school? Or shall I plunge right off into “life”?
I try to answer these letters according to the circumstances of each case. But I sometimes feel that I would like to try to write a general answer to the whole general problem of “school” versus “life” in the minds of my correspondents. I think I would say:
DEAR Jack – or Margaret: You say you wonder if it is worth while for you to go on with high school. You particularly wonder if it is worth while to enter and finish college. The tedium of study, nose buried in books, seems a waste of time compared with a job and the stimulus of productive work. You say you hate to bother me with this “trifling” problem of yours.
It is not a trifling problem at all. Your decision will affect your whole life; similar decisions by millions of other young Americans will affect the total life of our country. And I know how deeply it must worry you. It worried me and a lot of my schoolmates when I was your age.
In a small Kansas town 40 years ago, a reasonably strong case could be put up in favor of leaving school early. Outside those few who could afford to pick a profession, most of us knew our lives would be spent on the farm, or in one of the local stores, or at the creamery or elevator.
We could be good farmers, good storekeepers, good mill hands, without much book learning. The quickest road to practical knowledge was to do. That was the way we might have argued; and we would have been right if there were no more to successful living than plowing a straight furrow, wrapping a neat package, keeping a machine well oiled.
Fortunately, we came of stock that set the school on the same plane as the home and church. The value of education, above and beyond the immediate return in dollars and cents, had been bred into us. Our families stinted themselves to keep us in school a while longer; and most of us worked, and worked hard, to prolong that while.
Today the business of living is far more complex than it was in my boyhood. No one of us can hope to comprehend all its complexity in a lifetime of study. But each day profitably spent in school will help you understand better your personal relationship to country and world. If your generation fails to understand that the human individual is still the center of the universe and is still the sole reason for the existence of all man-made institutions, then complexity will become chaos.
Consequently, I feel firmly that you should continue your schooling – if you can – right to the end of high school and right to the end of college. You say you are “not too good at books.” But from books – under the guidance of your teachers – you can get a grasp on the thing that you most ought to understand before you go to work.
It is expressed in a moving letter I got the other day from a young girl halfway through high school. She said that in her studies she seemed to be a failure all along the line, always trailing everyone else. But then she ended by saying: “I still think I could learn to be a good American.”
That’s the vital point. School, of course, should train you in the two great basic tools of the mind: the use of words and the use of numbers. And school can properly give you a start toward the special skills you may need in the trade or business or profession you may plan to enter. But remember:
As soon as you enter it, you will be strongly tempted to fall into the rut and routine of it. You will be strongly tempted to become just a part of an occupation which is just one part of America. In school – from books – from teachers – from fellow students – you can get a view of the whole of America, how it started, how it grew, what it is, what it means. Each day will add breadth to your view and a sharper comprehension of your own role as an American.
I feel sure I am right when I tell you:
To develop fully your own character you must know your country’s character.
A plant partakes of the character of the soil in which it grows. You are a plant that is conscious, that thinks. You must study your soil – which is your country – in order that you may be able to draw its strength up into your own strength.
It will pay you to do so. You will understand your own problems better and solve them more easily, if you have studied America’s problems and done something toward their solution.
Never forget that self-interest and patriotism go together.You have to look out for yourself, and you have to look out for your country. Self-interest and patriotism, rightly considered, are not contradictory ideas. They are partners.
The very earth of our country is gradually getting lost to us. One third of the fertile top layer of our soil has already been washed away into rivers and the sea. This must be stopped, or some day our country will be too barren to yield us a living. That is one national problem crying for solution; it affects you directly and decisively.
In our cities there are millions of people who have little between them and hunger except a daily job, which they may lose. They demand more “security.” If they feel too insecure, their discontent might some day undermine yoursecurity, no matter how personally successful you might be in your own working life. That’s another problem – and there are innumerable others – whose solution requires the thought and good will of every American.
I cannot put it to you too strongly – or too often – that it is to your practical advantage to learn America’s character and problems, in the broadest possible way, and to help to bring those problems to their solutions.
It is dangerous to assume that our country’s welfare belongs alone to the mysterious mechanism called “the government.” Every time we allow or force the government, because of our own individual or local failures, to take over a question that properly belongs to us, by that much we surrender our individual responsibility, and with it a comparable amount of individual freedom. But the very core of what we mean by Americanism is individual liberty founded on individual responsibility, equality before the law, and a system of private enterprise that aims to reward according to merit.
These things are basic – your years in school will help you to apply these truths to the business of living in a free democracy.
Yours is a country of free men and women, where personal liberty is cherished as a fundamental right. But the price of its continued possession is untiring alertness. Liberty is easily lost. Witness the history of the past 20 years. Even the natural enthusiasm of warm youthful hearts for a leader can be a menace to liberty.
It was movements of misguided young people, under the influence of older and more cynical minds, that provided the physical force to make Mussolini the tyrant of Italy and Hitler the tyrant of Germany. Mussolini’s street song was “Giovinezza” – “Youth.” Hitler based his power most firmly on the Hitler Jugen – the Hitler Youth.
Never let yourself be persuaded that any one Great Man, any one leader, is necessary to the salvation of America. When America consists of one leaderand 143,000,000 followers, it will no longer be America. Truly American leadership is not of any one man. It is of multitudes of men – and women.
Our last war was not won by one man or a few men. It was won by hundreds of thousands and millions of men and women of all ranks. Audacity, initiative, the will to try greatly and stubbornly characterized them. Great numbers of them, if for only few minutes in some desperate crisis of battle, were leaders.
You will find it so in the fields of peace. America at work is not just a few “Great Men” at the head of government. of corporations, or of labor unions. It is millions and millions of men and women who on farms and in factories and in stores and offices and homes are leading this country – and the world – toward better and better ways of doing and of making things. America exceeds all other lands – by far – in the number of its leaders. Any needless concentration of power is a menace to freedom.
We have the world’s best machines, because we ourselves are not machines; because we have embraced the liberty of thinking for ourselves, of imagining for ourselves, and of acting for ourselves out of our own energies and inspirations. Our true strength is not in our machines, splendid as they are, but in the inquisitive, inventive, indomitable souls of our people.
To be that kind of soul is open to every American boy and girl; and it is the one kind of career that America cannot live without.
To be a good American—worthy of the heritage that is yours, eager to pass it on enhanced and enriched – is a lifetime career, stimulating, sometimes exhausting, always satisfying to those who do their best.
Start on it now; take part in America’s affairs while you are still a student. There are responsibilities about your home, in your neighborhood, that you can assume. There are activities about your school, on your campus, that will be more productive of good by your contribution.
Don’t think that you are too young. “Let no man despise thy youth,” Paul the Apostle said to Timothy. These words apply to you as an American. Loyalty to principle, readiness to give of one’s talents to the common good, acceptance of responsibility -- these are the measure of a good American, not his age in years.
Alexander Hamilton – General Washington’s aide in war, President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury in peace – was speaking before applauding crowds of his fellow New Yorkers on the political problems of the American Revolution when he was only 17 years old and still a student in King’s College, now Columbia University. The same stuff of which Hamilton was made is in you and all American youth today.
But above all, while you are still at school, try to learn the “why” of your country. We Americans know “how” to produce things faster and better – on the whole – than any other people. But what will it profit us to produce thingsunless we know what we are producing them for, unless we know what purpose animates America?
To assure each citizen his inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was the “why” behind the establishment of this Republic and is today the “why” for its continued existence. What that means to you personally, what you must do toward its fulfillment, cannot be answered completely in a letter. But I repeat that the answer can be found in your school, if you seek it deliberately and conscientiously. You need neither genius nor vast learning for its comprehension.
To be a good American is the most important job that will ever confront you. But essentially it is nothing more than being a good member of your community, helping those who need your help, striving for a sympathetic understanding of those who oppose you, doing each new day’s job a little better than the previous day’s, placing the common good before personal profit. The American Republic was born to assure you the dignity and rights of a human individual. If the dignity and rights of your fellow men guide your daily conduct of life, you will be a good American.
NOTE: At least 5 years ago I started to write this up, but didn’t finish at that time. But NOW – after mailing the article on “Abe Lincoln’s Stepmother” – it seemed the right time to link with it this article also.
HOWEVER, as you no doubt noted, it was written 60 years ago. America has vastly changed. Youth, we need you with High School and College completion more than ever. Our nation has DRASTICALLY slipped in the last 60 years. No longer is schooling linked with a strong home and church.
But though the times are desperate, you as youth with the challenge of “Ike,” can make a difference. We can return to the better standards of the past.
On April 1stI mailed out an article entitled “The Left’s Ideological Unacceptability” by Newt Gingrich, taken from his latest book of this year entitled “REAL CHANGE.” THIS will in the hands of youth and the rest of us from all political persuasions -- or none – help give direction how to preserve our nation of “America.”
Different? Yes. Possible? – also Yes! For you, young men and women – it is a time of both crisis and challenge. Your schooling is more than ever important. Let home and church join this same standard. The principles and goals set forth by Dwight Eisenhower are still today valid, relevant and compelling. The choice is yours. I believe a sufficient contingent of you will hear, respond and triumph. For God and country! Youth, Arise!