Nile Kinnick's Commencement Speech
May 20, 1940
"The remarks I have to make tonight are very brief, but nonetheless, with your permission, I am going to read them rather than attempt to render them without the benefit of a text. I prepared this short talk several weeks ago, but since then, so many events of terrible and ominous significance have taken place in the world that I almost revised it. The bloody holocaust raging in Europe with its possible repercussions in this country tends to exert depressive influence on all of us, and as a result, many of you will scoff at many of my remarks as foolish hopes and mere fictions. However, whether we know it or not, or like it or not, we in this country live by idealistic hopes and by fictions. And it may be that in the last analysis these seeming fictions and idealisms will prove to be the only realities. With this thought in mind, I shall read this speech with absolutely no apologies for the hopes and aspirations expressed.
Tonight, we seniors are gathered here as college graduates. Four short but dynamic years have gone fleeing by. It seems only yesterday that we entered this university as the very greenest of freshmen. Each one of us has treated and experienced these four years in different ways. To some, it has been one grand holiday at father's expense marred only by the necessity of a certain amount of study and classroom attendance. To others, it has been a grand opportunity to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of posterity-minded parents. And to still others, it has been a stern and intense experience - an opportunity, yes - but realized on only by treading the rough and rocky road of unmitigated hard work. I speak of you courageous boys and girls unfavored by financial assistance from home, who have earned your way by outside work on this campus, who have struggled desperately to meet your physical needs and at the same time maintain a decent classroom average. No social activities or frivolous pleasures have been yours, but you have asked for no quarter nor given any. You have been willing to pay the price for that which so many of us take as a matter of course. You hold your heads high tonight and rightly so, for you have fought and won.
But regardless of what this college experience has meant to different students, this evening we stand as one body, and in a few days, we shall stand together once more to receive that which is emblematic of four years of academic study well done - our diploma. Some of us will treasure this scrap of paper, some will be indifferent, and some will be cynical and unappreciative. But to all of us, it will serve as a sort of union card; hence forward, we are members of that great group who have "been to college." Unfortunately, it can't honestly be said that we are now educated, but certainly, at least, this diploma indicates that we have been satisfactorily exposed to the process.
And what now - where do we go from here? Certainly, it isn't a very pretty picture: unemployment and uncertainly here at home and international anarchy abroad. What part are we to play in this dynamic ever-changing world? We are told on the one hand by the pedagogues of the university that the salvation of this nation is on our shoulders, and on the other hand depicted in the honorable Ding Darling's cartoons as naive, intellectually doped youngsters, without any ideas of practicality. But be that as it may, I know that we are full of ambition, courage, and a desire to do well for ourselves and for the society of which we are a part. We shall struggle to be sufficient unto the need. If it means better government, we shall be active there, if it means more enlightened business leadership, we shall strive for that, and if it means a broader, more responsible international outlook, count on us to be alert and ready.
Are we capable of successfully meeting the problems that face us? Have we been adequately equipped to fulfill our manifest duties and obligations? Only time can honestly answer. But we may be sure that if this great university is succeeding in her aims, then we shall be successful in ours. Fundamentally, all true education is composed of mental discipline and inspiration, and one is of no avail without the other. All successful teaching must hinge on these two necessary fundamentals. Nobly have our professors endeavored to embody these principles in their lectures and personal associations with us. Hopefully, now they will watch our progress to see if we make use of the tools with which they have tried to provide us.
However, the successful use of what we have learned here will be contingent entirely upon the addition of another element, which we alone can provide. For whether we realize it or not, we have lived a rather sheltered life here at the university. Here, our ideals are lauded, appreciated, and protected; the development and expression of a social consciousness has been easy. But you know and I know that this period of easy idealism is now at an end. And it is here that this other element of which I speak and which can be provided by the individual and the individual alone enters into the picture.
I refer, fellow graduates, to a real, positive, mental courage. We all seem to have the courage to face the physical forces of life - sickness, poverty, unemployment, even war itself - but how about courage of conviction, of morality, of idealism, courage of faith in a principle tangible proof of which is slow in appearing? Herein lies that phase of these problems which we must meet by ourselves, unaided by any university-given tools. Here is that angle of the greater difficulty which most often has proven the weak point in graduates of the past. True, we must learn to face adversity with equanimity, and even philosophically, but at the same time never for a moment losing sight of the ultimate goal, never failing in our ambition or our ideals. By now, we should have learned that success and happiness and attainment come only periodically not permanently, that they really are only passing moments in our experience, and that therein lies the explanation of the law of progress and human dynamics. By now, we should realize that the battle is life itself, and that our joy and happiness should lie as much in the struggle to overcome as in the fruition of a later day.
So let us confidently take courage in what we deem to be right, and, no matter what our line or endeavor may be, cling to its concomitants of persistence, desire, imagination, hope, and faith. Our competitive urge must not only be objective but subjective, not only physical but spiritual. Injustice, oppression, and war will ultimately bring on their own destruction; suffering and misery eventually awaken the human race. But that is the long, sad, unenlightened road we have taken in the centuries past. Now is the time for these problems to be solved by enlightened thought and understanding. We can accomplish much if we implement mental discipline and inspiration with real mental courage. The task is not easy; wishful thinking will not do the job. We shall have to battle until we seemingly have reached the end of the line, then tie a knot and hang on. This is not just a figure of speech but an imperative necessity."