Carrie Chapman Catt

Commencement Address at Iowa State College - June 15,1921

Carrie Chapman Catt
June 15, 1921— Ames, Iowa
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Ever since the first graduating class, the elders have been giving graduates advice, and I predict that so long as there are graduates the elders will continue to give them advice, although graduates will continue to pay small heed.

This relation between the old and the young is quite normal. Each incoming generation seems to issue a challenge to the outgoing generation, as though it said, "What a pitiful botch of things you have made! Just watch us!" And the outgoing generation, sensing that unspoken challenge, wants to rise to the defense of its own record. It wants to tell why there have been so many lost battles in the great conflict for civilization. It wants to tell the younger, oncoming generation what hazards there were and what pitfalls might have been avoided.

I doubt if any young man or woman can comprehend the sincere yearning with which the college oldster longs to pass on to the college youngster some of the principles and motives of human conduct which he thinks he has extracted from his own conflict in life, but college youth, straining at the leash which has held him so long to the business of preparedness for life, has no patience to learn more rules of the game. He has perfect confidence that he is going to know how to act when once he has a chance, and he only longs for the opportunity to try. So this irrepressible conflict between the oldsters and the youngsters is bound to continue to the end. The elders will go on advising and youth will go on spurning the counsel; and the generations will come and the generations will go.

But even so, I shall follow the universal trend and give you a bit of advice. I beg you, the Class of 1921, to be patient, for you know that the youths of today are to be the elders of tomorrow, and in twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from today, you yourselves will be giving addresses to graduating classes as yet unborn. You will then have had your fling at life; you will have had your successes and your failures and with your soul afire with the desire to pass them on to them the lessons gained by experience you will find yourself framing your address in the same old inevitable terms of advice. And why not?

Thousands of young men and women in this month of June are stepping out of the colleges to find place in the great world. In the words of Edmund Burke—"Civilization is a contract between the dead, the living and the unborn-" The elders of this day inherited the combination of efforts of all the dead. They have guarded that which was most sacred and have builded something new. They must now pass the structure on to you, and it will be your task to unfold the best therein and make the whole better. It will be your task to solve the many problems left unsolved, and no generation ever found more unfinished jobs upon the political work table than will yours.

I never have known what period of time a generation covers—but let us say thirty years. Then the graduates from, let us say, 1910 to 1940—the graduates of a generation—are certain to be the directors of the destiny of this nation for a later generation—let us say from 1940 to 1970—they cannot escape it. These graduates will then sit in the halls of Congress, in the forty-eight Legislatures; they will wear judges' robes; they will compose the faculties of colleges; they will edit the great magazines and newspapers; they will lead the great movements of the time; they will direct the political parties. In truth, they will control all the factors which make civilization.

But there is something more. Dr. Henry Herbert Goddard, who is now head of the bureau of Juvenile Research in Ohio, and who was a member of the committee of Psychological examination of recruits in the United States Army, made a remarkable statement to the Convention of Charities and Corrections not long ago. Had it been made by almost any other man the statement might have been scorned—but however remarkable any statement of Dr. Goddard's may be, his eminence and authority are such that it compels the world to respect it Said he: "Ten percent of our population belongs to the class of super men." Its intelligence ranks high above the average. It is capable of unraveling a complicated proposition—of seeing directly into the heart of a problem, of comprehending the direction of social and political movements. It knows, it thinks, and it acts independently.

Twenty percent of the population is capable of understanding the intricacies of a situation when presented, although incapable of analyzing it without assistance. The remaining seventy percent includes at one extreme the feeble minded, and at the other, those who possess no further capacity than ability to finish the grades of the grades of the public school and to enter the high school. Now not all the college graduates are necessarily supermen, and not all supermen have ever seen the inside of a college.

Nevertheless, a considerable portion of the ten percent are doubtless in the list of college graduates, and in that small fraction, which would be included in the graduates of thirty years, we find those who will keep the civilization of the world moving onward for a whole generation, Upon the breadth of their vision, the clarity with which they compel others to see, and the courage with which they defend their ideals, will depend the rate of our national progress. The nation will be what they make it.

Realizing this portentous and somewhat amazing fact, how can any elder fail to warn college graduates that they are not as other men and women? Untold influences have combined to point out for them a higher destiny.

One man has figured out that for twenty generations each one of us has had one million grand-fathers and one million grand-mothers. Each one of these men and women have contributed something to the make-up of our individual character. There was something in that combination which threw you into the ten percent. You had nothing to do with it You were born there. Something in that combination also sent you to college. The environment which surrounded you too urged you to college. Here, you have had the training of men and women who are themselves the choicest product of the best educational system any nation ever had. You go from here to take your place as citizens in a land far ahead of most in religious and political freedom,—in the application of the principles of democracy and in the solution of those great problems which now so sorely vex the world.

Time was when graduates would be congratulated upon so happy a condition, and merely advised to live good and honest lives, that was long ago. The world known more now and it expects more. A very great Englishman, Bishop Inge, the Dean of St. Paul's, recently said a thing which most elders of many nations have been thinking:

"I have not viewed the generation of which I have been a part as a particularly easy or victorious one, but I confess that I look forward with great anxiety to the journey through life which my children will have to make." Why- Because after every war there is moral unrest and crime, disturbed financial and business conditions, high costs of living and oppressive taxation, but what is sadder than all, there is an ill considered radicalism threatening revolution and a corresponding much frightened conservatism which results in creating a general reaction in thought and pessimism in political action. It took thirty years for our nation to pass through that period of reaction after the Civil War. The greater the war, the more complex the war's aftermath. You, the youth of today, are they who must lead through this slough of despond to higher planes and do it without allowing the flag of progress to drop or falter.

The world needs leaders as it never needed them before. The great war revealed a sad fact—a man endowed with great power could produce a confusion which no living man was superman enough, nor was any combination of living men powerful enough to bring to order. The other day in Washington two very great Republicans, and for reasons obvious I will not give their names, were conversing with each other over this particular fact, and one said to the other, "The truth is our party has no men big enough for the mighty tasks that are now demanded of our nation," and the other agreed with him. They were very much depressed and then they remembered something and the thought cheered them, and they said, Well, after all, the Democrats have no bigger men than we."

It is this incapacity of the present generation to deal with the problems of the times that the elders are realizing. They know how many unfinished tasks—hard ones—they are leaving for you, and they would like to make it easier for you, if they could—to take you by the hand, as it were, and lead you onward. Most earnestly do they pray that you will be more ably fitted for your tasks than they have been for theirs? It is not that they have less confidence in you, but they believe if they could only equip you with all that they have leaned as they have journeyed through life you would be able to lift the flag of progress higher and to carry it further.

Following the example of all elders I want to give one bit of advice, and I want to leave with you one fact which I have leaned as the result of my life's experience. I do not expect you to accept the advice, but I hope that you may remember the fact.

The advice is that when you go forth from Iowa State College you will go with the determination to become men and women of vision. Vision is not a wild dream which comes in the night from indigestion; nor is it the idle fantasy of a discordant mind, although these charges have both been made. It is first an earnest, sincere conviction based upon a thorough understanding of the cause which produces the vision.

Second, there is knowledge of the evolutionary processes that will certainly lead that cause onward. Standing solidly upon absolute knowledge and looking into the future along a trail the world is bound to follow, one sees the realization of a wrong righted—that is vision. Each of you has a special inclination. You will find your vision there and whatever it is, the world needs you in its service. I do not ask you to be reformers—that means giving your entire life to a task. All I am asking you is this: wherever you go, whatever you do, take your vision with you.

There is a law of evolution— have learned much of that during your life in college. Some regard it as similar to the law of gravitation and think that it works while they sleep, but I want to tell you that evolution requires evolvers—men and women of vision who are willing to live and die for their causes. So I ask each of you to be an evolver along the line where your conviction is strongest and your vision clearest. Learn to think things through, to take into consideration all the facts, and especially the opinions of those who do not agree with you. Make the large things look large and the little things small, and when you have found your vision, stand fast Stand fast, when you have found your cause and your vision. The world may howl at you; it may jeer at you; it may even mob you—such things have happened—but in the end the world will surrender to you, and all the way through while the mob is jeering and howling at you, you will know that you are right and that it will surrender. And that is your support, your protection, your daily encouragement. If I knew how to present you an immortal gift, it would be to give you three quotations in a form that you would never forget. They would prove a daily guide for men and women of vision.

The first is from an old-time statesman, Alexander Hamilton, and is much more appropriate now than when he said it. Said he, "We, the people, are the state. If laws fail to protect, it is we who fail. If injustice dwells in this land, it is we who should hang our heads in shame." For at least a generation that responsibility is to be yours; you cannot escape it. Remember it.

The next is from the man usually called the greatest American—Abraham Lincoln. It is expressed in that rough and ready English which was his characteristic—"I do the best I know how—the very best I can—and I intend to keep on doing it until the end. If the end brings me it all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong then ten angels swearing that I was right would make no difference."

The third is from that great French philosopher who put his thoughts in far finer phrasing than most—Victor Hugo. "Abuses existed. I combated them, Tyrannies existed. I destroyed them. Rights and principles existed. I proclaimed and confessed them." If, when you have passed your generation of guardianship, you too can say this thing, you may know that you have lived a great life of service to the human race. And the fact that I would give you is only a simple thing. It is that as an evolver you can do nothing alone. It is only in combination with others that progress may be accomplished, in a nation dependent upon popular opinion. A single vote means nothing—a block of votes means much. Therefore you must learn to work with others. I believe that it is the hardest lesson that any human being ever has to learn.

Two people in a home have trouble enough to keep peace, and when it is necessary to bring the majority of the hundred millions of our population to a common understanding, the task is well nigh impossible. It means that you must concede; you must compromise; you must ever respect the opinions of others. Stand together.

It is said, here in America, that all things come through political parties and therefore progress comes through serving them. Political parties do not take stands for great causes until some block of voters within the party make a demand too strong to be overlooked. When it is considered necessary to its own safety and permanence that the political party move, then it does move—but only then. You may find your vision and your leadership within or without the party—there is need of both.

I beg that you do not conduct yourselves like the seventy percent or the twenty percent, unless you belong there. You are ten percenters, and you cannot escape the responsibility of the circumstances that put you there. That fact lays a responsibility upon you. You may fill your life with money making. I don't know whether women will ever make that their aim, but men do. The world may call you successful for the dollars that you have accumulated, but if you have not compelled your community to look forward along constructive lines of progress, no matter how many dollars you may have or what other successes the world may accord you, your life is a failure, for you have not fulfilled your obligation to all those grandfathers and grandmothers, to your College, to your State, and to the destiny which was yours. You, who from the very nature or things have been appointed as guardians of American civilization for a generation, I beg you to fit yourselves for your task.

Do not survey politics. (for progress is politics, and politics is progress), down in the valley where the fogs are densest—climb up to the political hilltops where in the sunlight there is a broader view, and there learn to understand the soul of things.

Great duties await you—great joys are coming to you—great battles will you fight: great victories will you win, so live your life that at the end you do not regret that you have only learned to fight when life is closing. Be men and women of vision; be evolvers; help the great Divine law to lead us nearer the millennium

To the wrongs that need resistance,

To the right that needs assistance,

To the future in the distance,

Give yourselves.

Read the transcript (PDF) in THE ALUMNUS Vol. XVII No. I.