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John Ben Shepperd: Graduation of Texas Southern University

May 31, 1954

Graduation of Texas Southern University (Houston, Texas)

Commencement day is a great institution. It is a time when graduates are happy, parents are proud, and professors are relieved. All three are inclined to think “there’s no feeling like this feeling.”

This occasion is a custom of long standing, and it has come to be expected that the commencement speaker will talk about the future with its golden opportunities, creating a better world, living a good life, or achieving success—or he is at least expected to tell some great truths he has learned from life.

I’d like to dispose of these things quickly. I believe the future will be here soon enough to speak for itself. If it brings golden opportunities for personal success, the point to remember is not only to strike while the iron is hot, but to make the iron hot with striking. I’ve heard it said that the man who sits waiting for things to turn up is looking at his toes.

As for creating a better world, you undoubtedly will, because every generation does. And when it comes to living a good life, that is a question of character. You can mold a mannerism, they say, but you have to sculpture a character, and it is easier to sculpture a bad one than a good one.

I suppose it is unthinkable that a graduation speaker should not express some great truth learned from experience. But as a politician, I feel the way Mark Twain felt—“Truth is such a precious article that I like to economize in its use.”

I don’t mean to profane your graduation with too much levity. I just want to prepare the way for the injection of a note of melancholy. This is probably the last time your old gang will be together. You may come back to Texas Southern now and then in future years, and you may find the walls still echoing the strains of your alma mater, but it won’t be your voice that sings, nor theirs. The old familiar faces will be gone, and no matter how many students are laughing up and down the halls, to you the place will look empty, full of ghosts and memories. There are certain things you can’t take with you.

What, then, have you received from Texas Southern University that you can take away? You have received an education. What is it worth? What can you do with it? What is this commodity dispensed from thousands of institutions of higher learning all over the country?

The popular definition would say that education is the training of the mind. That definition may satisfy the Russian, but it will not do for an American.

In a country like ours education has to be the training of the whole individual, and a whole individual is composed of many more things than a mind. Sometimes, looking at a college freshman, it seems that an individual may be composed of everything but a mind. Men are not yet fully rational beings; our actions are often motivated by emotional and physiological impulses[.] A doctor of philosophy is not incapable of a hatchet murder, and a psychology professor cannot always explain his impulse to outrun a traffic cop.

The object of education, therefore, is wisdom—the wisdom to live happily and govern oneself. It is a question of educating not only the mind, but also the heart and the backbone. Wisdom is nothing in the world but character.

The common fault of most colleges and universities today is that while they refuse a sheepskin to the student who cannot write a theme, they too often graduate with high honors many a mental giant who will not think responsibly. While they would never graduate a man or woman who couldn’t read, they heap diplomas upon people who will not read an editorial. They flunk that student who cannot understand Chaucer, but pass the one who professes to be mystified by the simplest problems of American government.

But I don’t lay it all on the poor student. The philosopher George Santayana said that the great difficulty in education today is to get experience out of ideas. We all know what it means to sit at the feet of a professor full of theory and precept but devoid of example. Many a student who doesn’t care for Latin and Greek is ejected from the classroom, yet there are thousands of university professors in the nation who recoil from the responsibility to keep up with public affairs and help their students to understand how theoretical knowledge applies to the world they live in.

The university that amounts to anything strives for the education of the whole individual. It realizes that the world is not in a state of nerves today for lack of brilliant minds, but because it cannot be sure of the basic morality and responsibility of its geniuses. Too many brilliant minds are thinking brilliant falsehoods.

I’m thinking primarily of communism. Communism is not peculiar to any particular class, faction or educational level. It filters into the ranks of the learned and the unlearned, the high and the humble, because it appeals to those individuals who are not educated in heart and backbone. It appeals to persons of little wisdom, weak in character, no matter how learned in mind they may be. Communism is the faith of unblanced,[sic] incomplete personalities.

A responsible university works to produce not only morally responsible men and women, but also men and women with the physical vitality to exercise their intellectual abilities to the limit. While it has maintained the highest scholastic standards, Texas Southern has also developed a program of physical education and athletics that has made it well known throughout Texas and the South for its outstanding athletes.

Texas remembers the victories of the Tiger baseball and football teams. We remember how you won the 1953 Exavier tract [sic] and field meet over Florida A. & M. We remember your victories at the M.W.A.A. Tournament in Nashville. We know of your outstanding basketball team, and the trophies it has brought home to T.S.U.

Texas Southern also boasts some of the most outstanding scholars and administrators. You are very fortunate to have had the benefit of their instruction and guidance.

But the most inspiring and most important aspect of training at Texas Southern is the atmosphere of christian [sic] dignity to be found among its students. This is possible only when professors and students alike carry their religion into every classroom. Only a mind that is grounded in eternal truths is equipped to sift the philosophies of Freud, Darwin, Spinoza, Descartes, and others, keeping the kernels of great though[t] and throwing the chaff away. And only such a mind is able to sift out the wheat from the everyday experiences of life, of business, and of human relation, discarding the worthless, the false, and the dangerous.

I am confident that in acquiring knowledge you have also acquired understanding—that you have come to the realization that a head full of facts and precepts does not necessarily constitute an education. As Thomas Mann put it in his ten commandments for educators, we must get rid of the idea that a college degree, by itself, means anything. Perhaps that is why we wear these gowns and mortar boards on graduation day—to symbolize that while our bodies are robed in great dignity, they are still topped with a flat head.

It isn’t what you know that counts, but how you apply it. When a home economics major learns to can a jar of pickles and hold it up to the light to see if it is leaking air and is going to spoil in a few months, she has wasted her time if she uses that knowledge only in the kitchen. She ought to use it in choosing a husband.

There are many wives present tonight who are proud that they did apply that knowledge in the right place. I think this commencement ceremony would be incomplete if we did not acknowledge their right to receive the P.H.T. degree – pushed hubby through. Many husbands, fathers, and mothers are also entitled to a share in the limelight here tonight; without their sacrifices this occasion would not be possible. And there are many of you [–] 59 in fact—to whom I would like to extend a personal welcome into the ancient order of the bootstrap. You are the 59 who worked your way through college—who lifted yourselves up by your own bootstraps—which is not an easy thing to do.

Your professors are granting you degrees tonight in the confidence that you are not merely another crop of graduates, but 198 men and women of responsibility and character—55 men and women with post-graduate training . . . five lawyers . . . five pharmacists . . . 125 others—journalists, business and vocational specialists, science majors, teachers, and linguists . . . psychologists, artists, home economists and industrial specialists ready to move into the stream of progress in the greatest country in the world.

It is incumbent upon you to leave here not merely with a head full of facts and a sheepskin for the wall, but with a sense of readiness for the part you will play on the state of life. Unless you have learned to think, you have wasted your efforts. Unless you have learned to lead, you have failed. Unless you have learned to take it on the chin and come back for more, you have spent your time in vain. Unless you have learned to work, you have learned nothing. Blessed is the man who has work to do and is able and willing to do it. To be able to do your own work is the final independence, and the final security.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.