John Ben Shepperd: The Sin of Silence

August 21, 1957

Sul Ross State College Summer Commencement (Alpine, Texas)

The Sin of Silence


I suppose that on such occasion as this, the Commencement speaker should make every effort to recall all of the learning that he was once exposed to under similar circumstances in order to show the graduates and the onlooking faculty that he is at least as clever, if not as learned, as those to whom he presumes to give advice.

But on looking back, I find that in the intervening years the professors have altered the facts of life and what was once called learning is now disproven theory. I hesitate to expose my accumulation of it to a body of men and women who have just finished acquiring better and more recent theory.

I used the word “theory” advisedly. What you have learned here is still theory to you until you have applied it and found out whether it is really true. Furthermore, all higher learning is inclined to by hypothetical. For example, I’m sure most of you have studied economics and since about 70% of you are either in the teaching profession or will be, you must have observed with interest that anything a college professor says about money is almost certain to be theoretical. It has to be with the salaries the state pays them.

I understand that 60% of this graduating class is taking the Master’s Degree. What does it mean to receive an M.A.? Most educators agree that it means at least one thing—that the holder of the M.A. has mastered the first and thirteenth letters of the alphabet.

But one of the most learned men of modern letters, Thomas Nann, says in his Ten Commandments for Educators that we must avoid the idea that a college degree, by itself, means anything at all. And indeed, I have noticed that a college graduate, decked out on Commencement Day in his gown and mortar board, has his body robed with dignity but topped with a flat head.

It is not without reason that I stand here making light of education as if it were over-rated. Actually, very few things in the world are more important. But I am sure Sul Ross College would not want anyone graduated from its hall under the misapprehension that the time you have spent in college was intended to give you learning. On the contrary, its purpose was to discipline your minds and to show you the means by which learning is acquired.

Just as the Constitution of the United States guarantees to every citizen the right to pursue happiness, but cannot guarantee happiness itself, a college degree is a guarantee that you have been equipped to become educated by your own future diligence. As someone has said, “it’s all right for a person to get a college education if he doesn’t mind learning a little something afterwards.”

The purpose of education is not to help you earn a living, but to teach you what to do with a living after you earn it. Is it enough that we should use our brains to keep our stomachs full? Or to provide ourselves a softer couch to lie on? Or to purchase luxury? Or to buy entertainment in order to escape the burden of thought? If there is no higher purpose for education, it is not only worthless, it is a curse to those who have it.

The was a time in the not-so-distant past when our fathers chose to lay down their living, and not their living only, but their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, to gain liberty. The highest purpose of education, among free men, is to preserve freedom. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The tax for education will be only a thousandth part of what we will pay to kings and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” To Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of education was “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

Sometimes I wonder whether our fathers would have spoken so proudly of their posterity if they had known that we were going to be it. We have departed from their ways. By some perverse evolution, many of the fundamentals which they wrote into the Constitution even before their Revolutionary wounds had stopped aching have become distorted beyond recognition.

We are not as free as our fathers were, nor as free as they intended we should be. And the cause of this is not that we are more populous or crowded, or that our society is more complex, or that we are circumscribed by a greater number of necessary laws. I will admit that the body of law which surrounds us constitutes a considerable restriction. Nowadays everything that isn’t compulsory is forbidden. It has been proposed that Congress and the State Legislatures should confine their efforts to passing laws telling us what we can do instead of what we can’t.

But the reason that we are less free than our fathers is that we are less independent. And because we are less independent, we want the federal government to reach down the long arm of patronage. But what it patronizes it must also control so it takes our small liberties and our privileges away.

It becomes an entity separate from the people and beings to do our thinking for us. Every little desire of our hearts it endeavors to provide. The pursuit of happiness is not enough for it to guarantee; it wants to make us happy. It is not enough that God created us equal; the government wants to improve upon that creation. It is not enough to guarantee the citizen a fair shake; the government will see to it that every citizen gets the same shake, even if he doesn’t want it.

And our government—the creation of our own hands, which is our own responsibility—will accomplish these miracles by acting upon certain theories which we actively propagate among ourselves through wishful thinking and the desire to escape responsibility.

You have heard the expression “double-think”, a process by which political dialecticians convince us that black is white. Consider a few examples of our own double-thinking. Consider them well, for these are the principles upon which our country is largely being governed: the way to establish prosperity is to discourage thrift; the way to help the poor is to destroy the rich; the way to help the wage earner is to tear down the wage payer; the way to make all men free is to make all men just alike; we can keep out of depression by constantly spending more than we earn; we can maintain prosperity by overtaxing the people and shipping the surplus money out of the country; we can build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence and by doing for him all the things he ought to do for himself—the quickest way to divest the population of its initiative is to convince half the people they need not work because the other half will support them and to convinced the other half that work is useless because someone else will reap the fruits of their labor.

There is nothing wrong, I suppose, with centralized, socialized government as long as it does not undermine the citizen’s character, rob him of his liberties or take away his ability to govern himself. But that is like saying it’s all right to play around with temptation as long as you don’t get embroiled in sin.

My chief objection to the centralization of government is not the expenditure of money but the destruction of the moral fiber of the people. Big government teaches the working man to spit on his boss instead of his hands. It treats private enterprise like a temporary, necessary evil. It teaches by precept and practice that there is nothing on the moral or spiritual plane that is worth as much as a higher material standard of living. It deludes the citizen into thinking that he can vote for prosperity instead of working for it.

More than half the 138 students being graduated here have prepared themselves for the teaching professions. Many of you have teaching experience. How will you answer those who come into your classes for learning and guidance when they look searchingly into your face and ask you for truthful answers to these questions: Now that I am in school, who decides what I must learn—my father and mother or a government bureau? When I grow up, will I be allowed to be myself or will I be a number in a government file? When I get sick, whose doctor can I go to, my own or one assigned by the government? When I am able to afford a home, will I be able to build one as good as I can make it or will it be a government-built house, worth only part of what the government taxed me for housing? And when I go to work, may I choose my own job or will I have to get a work permit from the government and take what they give me? If I have criticized the government, will they even give me a work permit?

Perhaps you think these questions are farfetched. Something out of a book on Communism, you say. Then let me give you some questions that even now are being asked, or should be asked, in every classroom.

Is it still true that a man can pick his own job or occupation and work in it wherever he wants to? No. This is a theory we teach our children but it is now disproven. Under federal law a man may be compelled to join a private organization—a labor union—and to support its political ideologies and social actions and contribute to its treasury in order to obtain or keep his job. State laws to the contrary—the so-called-right-to-work laws—are being struck down by the courts and men are no longer free to work or not to work, to join or not to join.

Is the freedom of the press still sacred? Is the right of the people to know the truth still involated? This, too, is a theory. Even now, under the ludicrous title of “Civil Rights”, a bill pending in Congress would imprison any newspaper reporter who publishes or reveals information about what goes on behind the closed doors of federal agencies dealing with the administration of the civil rights law. The right of the people to know what goes on in their government has been violated for years by closed doors, executive sessions and classified information.

If I had a thousand hands and counted on each finger, I could use them all to enumerate the federal laws and court decrees of the last decade alone which blow the bottom right out of the Constitution of the United States. And every one of them is a foundation on which worse evils are built.

But I know of no evil half so deadly as that which, at the present time, takes one-third of the average citizen’s income and spreads it around at home and abroad with such reckless abandon that our federal government now spends more money than all of our state and local governments put together. Already, from the purely economic standpoint, the United States government is out-socializing the most completely socialized economies in the world. As a matter of fact, it is supporting most them with forty-cent dollars. Our money is so inflated that telling a woman she looks like a million dollars is no longer a compliment.

And how is this possible? Americans, historically, have been the most antagonistic of all people toward the philosophy of high taxation. It is primarily an abdication of personal responsibility—wanting the government to do everything for us which our fathers did for themselves. Americans want to grow nothing but cotton and wear nothing but silk. We have mastered the art of being prosperous though broke and safe though insecure.

But there is a more present, more acute reason for the spiral of taxation and inflation which today is wiping out the collected savings of millions by eating up the value of the dollar faster than it collects interest. That reason is fear—fear of many things. Fear of old age, insecurity, failure, social inferiority, sickness and many other facts of life. But most of all and most reprehensible of all, we are afraid of Communism.

The fear of Communism is making cowards of us all and for fear of the Kremlin we are spending ourselves into bankruptcy, just as Lenin predicted in 1920. For fear of Communism we are still trying to buy friendship around the world and failing more dismally year by year, billion by billion. We maintain gigantic bases overseas. Every way we turn, the specter of Communism jumps up to frighten us into pouring more money into the federal treasury.

We are fretfully conscious of what the Communists will say about us if we don’t do this or that. Our every move, domestic or foreign, is calculated on the basis of whether the Communists will make propaganda hay out of it. For fear of Communism we are destroying the Constitution. The government feels that it has to out-socialize the master socialists, otherwise the other countries of the world will not like us. The danger of Communism is only this—that it forces who fear it to imitate it.

It is time for Americans to utter a new Declaration of Independence. It is time for each of us to stand up and say, “I am not afraid of Communism. And for fear of Communism I will not lay down my basic American freedoms, nor will I suffer my fellow countrymen to be abused by hysterical politicians and bureaucrats, nor will I taxed into oblivion, nor will I be smothered to death with the kisses of the welfare state. I will not allow my country’s domestic affairs to be governed by considerations of what Communist propagandists may say about it. I will not permit my country to be made a fool in the embassies of the world for fear that other countries without honor or pride may consort with Communists if we do not buy them off. The pirates of Tripoli were men of better caliber. Billions for defense, if necessary, but not one cent for tribute to Communism.

My intention is not to mar this occasion with gloom, but rather to stir you with a challenge—to show you who are teachers that there is something for you to teach which will not be found in a textbook—to show all of you that education must have purpose above and beyond the material benefits it can bring to its possessor. If I do not say these things and if you do not, in good conscience, make the safety of your country the primary object of your teaching skill or your actions as a citizen—then you and I alike are guilty of the sin of silence at a time when silence is unforgivable.

He was a great geographer who said the world’s most unemployed region is just north of the ears. It is a common fault of human beings to avoid thinking. But you are trained to think. And does your thinking not tell you that even now, as in the 1770’s and the 1860’s, our country needs a new Bill of Rights and a new birth of freedom. Are these the “blessings of liberty” that you will secure to yourselves and your posterity—taxes, inflation, socialism and fear? Will you leave your children the national debt? Will they enjoy paying for the good times we’ve had?

And who will teach our children and our children’s children what it means to be free? How will they taste of freedom if they do not know of responsibility and self-reliance? And how will they know of it unless you, their fathers, mothers and teachers, tell them and show them?

I’ll tell you what kind of graduates we need pouring out of our institutions of higher learning.  We need crazy, mixed-up students who get everything backwards under present-day thinking and have their own kind of double-thinking—who think personal happiness depends not on how the world treats you, but on how you treat the world, who know the only thing you can take out of this world is what you have given to others and who believe the only way to rise in the world is to keep your feet on the ground and stay on the level.

We need graduates with a bad sense of proportion, who think there is no job too big for them and there is no job of citizenship so small that they are too big for it. We need superstitious young people who believe in luck and who know the harder you work the more of it you have. We need weak, helpless graduates who have to depend on God for help and who have learned than an ounce of sweat carries more weight with God than a bucket of tears.

How shall we teach our children that freedom is as mortal as man? Is it enough to show them Bunker Hill or the Alamo and say, “This is where men died and freedom was born?” Isn’t it better to show them where freedom dies?

Freedom dies in the path over which men and women no longer walk to the polls. It perishes on the courthouse lawn where they no longer congregate to hear a man in shirt sleeves campaign for public office. It withers on the steps of the schoolhouse where the feet of fathers and mothers never tread.

Freedom dies in church pews that are never filled and in homes where half the family is standing around waiting for the other half to get back with the car—or where mom and dad have sent the kids out for the evening so they can have the house to themselves. Freedom dies wherever people are looking for reward without effort, life without pain, happiness without pursuit and a helping hand at the end of somebody else’s arm.

Some of you are teachers and some of you are not. All of you will have unlimited opportunity to teach or to demonstrate the truth about freedom. Do not be guilty of the sin of silence. Do not apologize for teaching or speaking the old-fashioned, unsophisticated, homely truths which today’s world is trying hard to ignore. Do not be ashamed to assert that it is better to be right than be rich . . . better to be fair than be famous . . . better to be good than be clever . . . better to be honest than be exalted . . . better to be free than be secure . . . better to run your government than to beg from it . . . better to die on your feet then live on your knees.

If you do these things, your reward will not be great by the world’s standards. All you will have is the comfortable realization that you have done all you can to build your community, state and nation. You can say with solemn pride that while others stayed in the background, you came forward and threw down the gauntlet to all the problems and injustices that hung over your countrymen. You can say that while others followed the crowd, you followed your conscience and that you were working to keep every dot and dash in the Constitution while others were slaving to get dollar signs on the ledger and feathers in their caps.

No, you won’t get much of a reward. All you will get is freedom. You’ll get the kind of country where every mother’s son is a future president . . . where men and women are free to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor . . . where opportunity is unlimited and the size of a man is not measured from his feet to his head, but from his head to the sky . . . where men and women can walk with their heads up, take off a hat to nobody and serve their own God.

It is a terrible and dangerous thing to use an education—or a government—for no better purpose than to fill our stomachs and enrich our pocketbooks. We cannot buy the blessings of liberty, nor can we vote them into existence. No one can open up a safety deposit box and file away a title to a Texas sunset. Nobody can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust and innocence in a child’s eyes. No man can trade a ballot or a negotiable check for the companionship of a true friend, for the bitter-sweet pangs of first love, for the satisfaction of personal accomplishment at the labor of his choice or for the love and devotion of a faithful wife. And all the money in all the treasuries of the world will not purchase the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a free man.

Are you really educated? If you have all the knowledge in the books, and have pushed outward to the obscure limits of science, and have mastered languages and equations and philosophies, you are still hopelessly ignorant unless you have also learned that:

Freedom is old, not young, yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him who is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
Yes, to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech 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.]