The Speeches at Assumption College

Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Commencement Address
Assumption College
May 19, 1979

It is a pleasure for me to be here again with all of you. I am proud to join in this special celebration of Assumption's Diamond Jubilee, the 75th anniversary of this outstanding college that has produced so many distinguished leaders in the public and private life of our Commonwealth.

Over the years, Assumption has had many warm associations with the Kennedy family. Your president, Joe Hagan has been a close friend for many years. He served with my brother Robert on the president's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. As an assistant to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he has offered frequent wise advice to me.

I recall how President Kennedy spoke of Assumption College on the visit he made to France in 1961. He addressed the City Council in Paris, and he told of the close ties in history, faith and culture between the French people and this college founded here in Worcester by the Assumptionist fathers so well known in France for their pioneering role in education.

I also remember how President Kennedy came to this campus in 1958, when he was a Senator, to dedicate the Science Hall. It was named for our older brother Joe, who gave his life in World War II. And in the years since then, the Joseph Kennedy Science Hall at Assumption has been a continuing source of pride to my mother and all the members of our family, a symbol of the excellence in scientific education provided by this college.

I am also pleased to be here today with so many distinguished recipients of honorary degrees.

The most Reverend Timothy J. Harrington, the Auxiliary Bishop of Worcester Diocese, has been an outstanding leader of the Church - in his service as director of a haven for homeless men, in establishing the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Holy Family League of Charity, and in his work in neighborhood and anti-poverty programs. He was also instrumental in founding Our Lady of Mercy School for exceptional children.

Elliot Norton is the Herald American's superb drama critic, who for years has been illuminating the Boston stage with his special perception and sensitivity.

President John Silber of Boston University is a powerful independent thinker whose leadership in education has inspired so many in both Congress and the academic world.

Sister Anna Polcino, a distinguished psychiatrist and surgeon, now directs an international therapeutic center for clergy. Her service and humanity are known far beyond the center. In her missionary work in Bangladesh, she performed over 5,000 operations and delivered 9,000 babies.

These are special people, and this is a special college. From your promising beginning 75 years ago, you have become an educational community which cherishes philosophical and religious inquiry, while excelling in more specialized subject matters. Truly, this campus has abided by the words of Pope Pius XI, who said:

"It must never be forgotten that the subject of Christian education is human beings, whole and entire, soul united to body in unity of nature, with all their faculties, natural and spiritual, such as right reason and revelation show them to be,"

You can be proud of your fine faculty at Assumption; proud of your parents and the sacrifices they have made to bring you this threshold of the future; proud of your own achievements as young men and women here; proud that Assumption which was an all-male school just ten years ago, now has another woman as president of the senior class, Toni Salamone.

Here in Worcester, as in America at large, we stand at one of those auspicious and periodic turning points in our history, the threshold of a new decade, the decade of the 1980's.

It will be a decade with special additional meaning for our nation, because of the approach of the symbolic year 1987, the two hundredth anniversary of the American constitution.

It will be a time, therefore, to re-dedicate ourselves to the basic principals we share as Americans; a time to renew our faith in America's basic strength; a time to pledge a deeper commitment to the values that built this nation in the past and that should guide us to the future.

What goals shall we set for the country in the coming decade? How shall we-how shall our children and grandchildren-remember the Eighties?

Will it be a rising sun or a setting sun, a forward step in the journey toward fulfillment of the American dream, or a backward step in the nostalgic and search for a simpler past that can never be recaptured?

Will it be a time of new action and inspiration for the nation? Or will it be a time of reaction and retreat in the face of events beyond our ability to control?

I refuse to accept the diagnosis that America is ungovernable, or that the problems on the nation's plate today are more difficult than the ones we have faced in our other critical periods of the past.

The hallmark of America has always been our ability as a nation to summon the will to meet and conquer any challenge. The central element in each of our achievements over past adversity was the ability of the nation's people and its leaders to recognize the public good amid the clamor and confusion of competing private and regional interests, and to work together to reach our common goals.

This country has to stand for something. In every aspect of public and private life, we need men and women imbued with the country's heritage, who have a vision of America's future, who are willing to stand up to narrow private interests groups, and who have the ability to mobilize the American people in pursuit of the great goals we share as citizens of the United States.

In large measure, the direction the nation takes will depend on the involvement and commitment of young persons like yourselves. Earlier this year, the "Chronicle of Higher Education" published the results of a poll on the attitudes of nearly 200,000 freshmen at nearly 400 colleges and universities around the nation. The results were as remarkable as they were disturbing.

The serious problems we face in our society are not going to fade away. There is an astonishing discrepancy in the figures I have cited between the priorities of young citizens like yourselves and your willingness to become involved in the effort to achieve them.

Over six hundred years ago, the poet Dante wrote:

"The person who has benefited from the common heritage, but does not trouble to contribute to the common good is failing sadly in his duty. He is not a tree beside the running waters, bearing fruit in due season, but rather a vicious whirlpool, forever swallowing things, but never giving in return."

Those words speak to us now across the centuries. Those of you who graduate today can be certain of one thing. Those who do not share your priorities will be glad to have you sit on the sidelines or stay home and decline to cast your vote. Increasingly in our society, basic decisions about the direction of our nation are being made by small well-organized and well-financed special interests groups.

Their power depends on your apathy. So long as you fail to participate or become involved, their views will dominate the public dialogue, and their priorities will be written into law. Energy policy will be made by the oil lobby and the nuclear power lobby; crime policy will be made by the gun lobby; health policy will be made by the medical lobby; and so on for all the other things you care about.

But it does not have to be that way. You do not have to make a headline to make things change. In our country today and in nations throughout the world, many Americans are doing many worthwhile things. They are people whose pictures you will never see, whose deeds you will never read about, who will never win a Nobel Prize.

Physicians are bringing healthcare to people and places that never had a doctor. Teachers are bringing knowledge and opportunity to children who have never had a school. Lawyers are brining the Constitution to people who never knew the Bill of Rights. Businessmen and women are brining new enterprises to the city ghetto and rural farm, and helping to end the ancient curse of poverty and neglect. In many parts of our country and the world, Americans are making a real and very important difference for their fellow human beings.

The tinder is there, waiting for the spark. And, often, especially in the recent past, it is the young people of America who have been the first to try to meet the need.

One of the finest chapters in the history of America's long and tragic involvement in Vietnam was written by the millions of young men and women who first saw the truth about the war and persuaded America to turn back. One of the finest chapters in the recent history of civil rights was written by the youth of America and the freedom riders of the early 1960's. One of the finest chapters in America's concern for impoverished peoples of the world was written by young persons in the Peace Corps over-seas and in our domestic service program here at home.

One of the most important challenges we face today is to preserve the vital role of youth by protecting and enhancing the values of our system of education. The Church has long understood the importance of a diverse educational system, which makes opportunities available for students to attend quality institutions of their own choice. For years, parishioners have contributed to the upkeep of higher education. Some of the earliest and finest educational institutions in this country have been Church-sponsored.

But as the tuition, room, board and other costs of college climb, the diversity we have cherished in the past is threatened. Hard-working families find themselves priced out of one of the central elements of the American dream, a quality education for their children.

It is not easy to get to Assumption College. The tuition here is $3,000 a year, and room and board cost an additional $1,500, which make a total cost pf $4,500 a year. If you are a graduate of St. John's High School, you may go to the local bank for a loan, or to the government for a scholarship. But less than one out of two students gets a loan or scholarship. And most of these loans and scholarships do not cover the full cost of the college. Then you try to find a part-time job, or ask your parents to pay still more, so you can begin your college education. Worst of all, if these methods fail, you decide that you can't attend Assumption College, or perhaps any college at all.

In other years, we have responded nobly to similar challenges in the field of education. A century ago we made a pledge to the people of this country. During the Civil War, we passed the Morrill Act in 1862. We set up land-grant colleges throughout the states to educate the nation's youth in agriculture and mechanics.

A generation ago, we made a pledge to those who risked their lives for their country. During the Second World War, we passed the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944. We promised assistance to every soldier, sailor, and flier who returned home and sought to resume his education.

Now is the time, as we approach the decade of the 1980's, for America to make another pledge to its young citizens-to provide the freedom and the opportunity to attend the college of their choice.

First, the assistance must be adequate, so that students can attend Assumption if they choose, or Clark or Worcester State as well. Full financial freedom must become the first principle of federal aid to education. Rationing by price is not acceptable principle in energy or health care, or education, or any other basic necessity. No student in Worcester or any other city in Massachusetts or any state in America should be denied the opportunity to attend the college of his choice because he could not pay the bill.

Second, we must reduce the cost of these programs to the government, to the taxpayer, and to the parents of the student. College graduates enjoy great benefits, financial and otherwise. They should be willing to pay back their education loans, so long as the repayments come at reasonable times and levels they can afford.

Third, government assistance must not infringe on the freedom of academic institutions. A state school must be responsive to the state government. A private school must be responsive to its board of trustees. But federal assistance must never be allowed to turn our colleges into arms of HEW or other federal agencies.

There is a way to meet these three concerns. In the coming months I shall propose a plan-the so-called "Campus Loan Program'-to reform our present academic aid programs and to insure full educational choice for all college students.

I have worked closely with many educators on this plan, especially John Silber, who has done so much to lay the groundwork for this new approach that holds so much promise for the future of American education.

Under the Campus Loan program, college students will be eligible for a loan to convert the full cost of the college of their choice, taking into account scholarships and other aid, and a reasonable contribution from their parents.

In the years after graduation, the students will pay back the government for the entire amount. Payments will be made at a time when the student is working and earning a salary. They will be spread out over enough years so that young and growing families will not feel too tight a pinch.

The proposal is as simple as it is effective. Because the loans will meet the full cost of tuition and living expenses, the program will do a better job than even the largest federal grant program now available. Most aid-to-education programs today might as well come in thin envelops with the small list of colleges that students can afford. But the Campus Loan program will come in fatter envelopes with tickets covering the full cost of the college of their choice.

The message I would leave with you today is to share the action of the times. It will not be easy to reach the goals we share in education or any other area. It will be impossible to reach them unless citizens like yourselves take up the call for action, and commit yourselves to work to generate the change we know must come.

As individuals, you can make a difference if only you are willing to become involved. You did not make the world you live in. But you have the chance to change it, to leave it better than you found it.

Let us resolve that private interest shall not prevail over the public good. Let us pledge that when our children and grandchildren look back on the coming decade, they will remember it as another of those great historic eras in which America flowered, in which the nation's spirit and vitality rose to meet the challenge-a decade, in short in which the promise of America once again was met.

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Ted Kennedy Delivers speech at the Robert and Janet Testa Science CenterTed Kennedy delivers speech at the Robert and Janet Testa Science Center