The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Digital Edition > Audio Materials
Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches
Literacy, Democracy, and Education
Speech at Dutchess Community College
May 23, 1961
ER speaks to Dutchess Community College on the importance of literacy and education to democracy. After her speech she takes questions from the audience.
Reporter of Duchess Community College since its inception in 1957. During the college's first year, she was a guest lecturer sponsored by the International Relations Club. Today, speaking on the topic "Literacy, Democracy and Education", we are exceedingly pleased and proud to have her back. We are especially pleased in welcoming our guest today for she is of national and international prominence. Among her many and varied accomplishments was her selection as Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights in 1946. The commission under her leadership devoted itself to the preparation of a Declaration of Human Rights. It is for this among other reasons that our guest is known as the spokesman for the democratic way of life. Truly she is one of the elder statesmen of the world. It is now my great pleasure to introduce to you, the students and faculty of Duchess Community College, ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.
Thank you very much for that introduction Mr. Chairman, Mr.(1:31) [Laughs] Ladies and gentlemen, can you hear me in the back? You can. [Laughs] This question that we are to discuss this morning, "Literacy, Democracy, and Education", is a question that really affects the whole world because in many parts of the world there has been very little literacy but strange to say I think one might consider that there had been a considerable amount of education. And so that, from my point of view, literacy, which we have had in this country to a considerable extent for a long time, is only the beginning of a-an easier way to acquire education. You go to an Indian rural village and there will perhaps be no- no one even among the sort of older council of the village. There's always in every rural Indian village a group of older men who sit in council and decide the important things for the village. And if you sat and looked at them you would feel a kind of age-old wisdom in those old faces and a dignity which is very great. And when they begin to talk you realize that back of them there are centuries of culture and that is of course what we strive for um in education. (3:49) And actually education is only really learning to live. You can have literacy and no education. [Thomas] Jefferson said, of course, and it's something we remind ourselves of very often that with our form of government, which was the most difficult form of government to run successfully, we needed an educated people. He didn't say a literate people. He didn't mean just people who could read and write and perhaps do a little arithmetic. He meant people who had learned how to live and, in this particular case, he was thinking of people who had learned how to participate in their government. And from his point of view that meant understanding the problems before their world as they were meeting it in those days and acting as wisely as they possibly could.
Now of course today, our world has become much more complex. It is much more difficult to really be an educated person. And I think therefore we have to look [coughs] on education as a preparation to make it possible for us to get what knowledge we need at any point in our lives. I think more and more we are looking on our education as giving us tools. Reading is a very important tool, but just to be able to read doesn't really matter much today. Unless you can read with understanding and unless you can think about what you read and unless you know that you have the ability to use this ability to read to acquire any knowledge that you need to meet a situation in your life. So what you are doing as long as you are going through your formal years of study is to acquire tools. Everything you learn trains your mind, makes your mind better able to meet the needs that you may have to meet at some point in your life. And sometimes you will think that what you are learning or what is suggested to you as a good thing to learn seems useless in the lives that you are leading at the movement. But this world in which we live changes so quickly that I think it is well to remember that one thing we are trying to do is to train our minds, to stretch our horizons, to be able to understand better things that we have perhaps never seen but perhaps are going to see. To be able to know a little more about the world as we know it today and to prepare ourselves to know more about the world as it may be within our lifetimes.
I think this is a most exciting period of history to live in. That has been said, of course, of different periods by people right along. But I suppose we tend to think of our period of history as one of great excitement and interest. Now it is a dangerous period because we have learned how to destroy. We have learned how to destroy very efficiently. And if we use our knowledge for destruction we can very easily finish our civilization. The question is whether we can use our education to preserve our civilization and to use for good the scientific discoveries which are crowding upon us more and more quickly. Some people say that while we have gained enormously in scientific knowledge in the past few years we have not gained as quickly in the wisdom of human relationships. And therefore, we are not capable of using this knowledge for the good of humanity as a whole. This is the thing that I think most of us are learning today. That we can no longer think of just a few people. We have to think of humanity as a whole because if we destroy our world by the use of scientific knowledge for destruction we destroy our humanity as a whole. And it doesn't matter whether we live in one part of the world or another. Or whether we are of one race or of another race. Or of one religion or of another religion. We will destroy our civilization if we really do not use education to make us capable of meeting the problems of the world today. Better understanding among peoples, I think sometimes a part of our lack of understanding is uh just simply not thinking.
I'll give you a little example. We have the-- I went back this um spring for a short term into the United Nations. When I had left it, eight years ago, there were only sixty member nations. When I went back there were ninety-nine. And all you had to do was to sit in the General Assembly and look at the delegations and you suddenly realized that in the world, if you hadn't realized it before, that in the world the white race was a minority race. And that you were facing people from different parts of the world who were not white people. And that it would require some real effort at understanding, some real effort at getting to know. I was interested right after Thanksgiving um I had been asked if I would invite some of the new delegates from French-speaking Africa. They wanted to go to my husband's library. They went there and I met them there in the morning. And then, they came home to lunch with me. And one of my grandsons, my oldest grandson, drove back in the car. Now they had seemed to have a very pleasant time. And after lunch, which was a buffet lunch was over I had eighteen, eighteen French-speaking delegates and all of them from African states, new states that have come in and a few Nigerians who speak English. After lunch they had asked if they could sit around the living room and ask questions. And I found myself being asked to explain, in French, our Electoral College system. This was a little complicated. I never tried this before. [Laughs] I found it quite difficult. [Laughs]
But nevertheless, um we really had an hour of-of very pleasant time. They didn't leave until four o'clock. And my grandson who drove down in the car with a group of them heard one say to the other, "This was the happiest day we have spent since we came to America. No one seemed to look at us as curiosities. We were just treated like people. Nobody was over kind. Nobody seemed to think of us except just as another person." And I suddenly realized what it must be to come to a country where you don't know the language and to have some people very kind, a great many people indifferent, and some people very disagreeable. And [coughs] to feel all the time that you are an exhibition. And that people are looking at you as something peculiar. And I thought how dreadful this is. Here we are in a tiny little world on the threshold of discovering worlds all around us. And perhaps of finding human beings on other worlds far more advanced, perhaps not as advanced. And we can't even learn to be educated enough to get on with the people in our own little world.
Now this I think is what [Thomas] Jefferson was thinking of when he said that our form of government and our way of life needed education. Democracy is a way of life. Our form of government is a representative republic. But democracy is a way of life. And the real-the real thing that makes democracy different from communism, for instance, is not the type of economy. Surely, they have a socialist economy; we have a capitalist economy. But when we say a capitalist economy we must be careful to say that it is not like the capitalism that some people know in some parts of the world. Ours is a controlled capitalism to a great extent. And [coughs] they are different from what you will find in some other places. But this is not what democracy really means. Some people will tell you that democracy really is the same thing as capitalism. It isn't at all. A form of economy can be a form that you prefer but, for instance, in Norway and in Sweden they have a mixed economy: some socialism, some capitalism. And we're going to find that arrangement in many countries of the world. We happen to have great natural resources so we were able to have a very successful capitalist society,(18:34) which as we went along we controlled in different ways. But many countries have not got the natural resources to have just one kind of development in their economy. So it's not the economy that makes the difference. The real difference is in the ideals and the real beliefs. Now what do we really believe if we believe in democracy.
From my point of view, those of us who believe in democracy believe, first of all, that every human being, just by being a human being, has value because as a human being there is within that man or woman a spark of the divine. And that is what makes the real difference. We value a human personality. And we believe that government exists to serve the people, to meet their needs, their desires, their hopes, their aspirations. To help them to meet the kind of things, to help them to achieve the kinds of things they hope for in life. The communist philosophy is entirely different. You are valuable as you serve the state. It is important that you should have material things because those material things will make you more valuable to the state. But you as an individual have no real value. And that's why you can have a type of education in the Soviet Union which aims at a very disciplined and completely amenable citizen. You are not trained to think freely. You are trained to think along the lines that the government wants you to think so as to achieve their ends. Now this is entirely different. If we live in a free society, and democracy believes in a free society, we try to give people the freedom to think, to try experiments, to do things that will develop them as people. And we allow them to change their minds, to make mistakes, and to try something new.
Now this I think is an essential. There are times when I have felt that we were being narrowed down in our country and we were not being given the freedom to think and to make mistakes that we needed to have. But I think that time has passed now. We are pretty free to think and to experiment and out of that comes education. Education to live. The more you read the more you will find that you are interested in the ideas of other people, and that you are rubbing your mind against the mind of the person who wrote that book. And if you think, new ideas will come out of it. Education is a difficult process. Many of us at one time or another, I think, have made mistakes in the kind of education we wanted. Sometimes when we are young we think we want the kind of education which we find the pleasantest, the easiest, which we can see will give us an immediate use. We can use this thing we are learning to do something we want to do right away. One of the things we have to remember is that what we are doing during the formal years of learning is to train our minds, to train our minds so that we can meet the changes of our world. So that we will be flexible enough to look in to the new things, to examine a new thing and decide whether it's good or bad. To adjust ourselves to new situations. Life has become a series of adjustments for a great many of people these days. And this I think is one of the things we want to prepare for in our education. I don't know how much you have been thinking about it, but economists are thinking very seriously today about the problems of our whole economic system. Automation, the use of machines, has of course been something we have known about for a long time. But it's only lately that the use and the discovery of more things that machines can do is coming about so quickly that the old laws of adjustment are not working anymore. Therefore, we are going to have to do some planning in economy. And we are coming into a period which I think very interesting.
I think I'll tell you first a little story. Um Mr. Khrushchev, when he came to see me the last time he was in New York, he had been behaving rather badly in the United Nations and I had written two columns against him and I was very troubled because I thought if he started out talking about the United Nations I wasn't going to be awfully polite to someone who was my guest. And so I was worried. I wanted to make it as little official as possible so I had only one other person there to pour tea, my cousin, Mrs. Kermit Roosevelt. But he brought the ambassador, Mr. [Mikhail] Menshikov, the foreign minister, uh Mr. [Andrei] Gromyko, and his interpreter. But he gave me no time at all. He started right straight in, boasting about the new discoveries that had been made in the Soviet Union and what was going to happen. They had just found new oil fields. They had just found new ore, [coughs] enormous quantities of new ore fields. They were going to plan now on a twenty-year basis, no five and ten-year plans. Twenty years ahead. And in twenty years they would be producing an amount of steel which was so astronomical that I, who am deaf, thought I must have heard him wrong. [Audience laughs] So I thought, I said, "Well sir, if you are going to produce this amount then you must have new markets. And that means that you will have to raise the standard of living of your people and of the Chinese people far more quickly than you've done in the past few years. And he looked at me and he said, "That just shows how differently our minds work. [Audience laughs] All I think of is that when we reach this amount of production our people will only have to work four hours a day."[Audience laughs]
And I said, "Oh we are not going to be peculiar in that. With automation we are all going to be working four hours a day before we know it. And what troubles some of us is what are we going to do with the rest of our time. We've got to improve the educational opportunities for people because masses of people are going to be able to enjoy things which they can't enjoy unless they have the education to enjoy it. And before they had only been available to the rich. Now they will be available to masses of people and um so we are wondering, also since machines will replace the work of human hands to a very great extent, and what human beings do will be almost automatic, whether perhaps we won't need a tremendous amount of learning in crafts because human beings long to create something. And if your work takes that ability to create away from you then you must have an outlet somewhere else. And it may be we are going to need a great deal more knowledge of how to do things in all kinds of different crafts during this extra time that we are going to have." And he looked at me and he said, "Oh, you worry about that? I do not worry about it. My educational system will take care of it."
Well, now, I have pretty good knowledge of their educational system and I'm not so sure, unless there are quite a number of changes. But also I know that this is a tremendous change that we are all going to face. And that it is going to mean that we are going to have to plan. We can't allow so many people to be thrown out of work without having the new things that they're going to do planned and having a chance for retraining. We can't allow people really to sit and watch television hours and hours a day because they haven't really the understanding and the knowledge eh to enjoy other things. There must be a widening and a broadening of education. And also there must be an understanding among the people generally of the necessity to broaden one's horizons, to change one's outlook. The things that one thought was sufficient are not going to be sufficient in education. To really live life satisfactorily and that's what education is for, to live life satisfactorily. We are going to have both the desire, I hope, to train our minds to meet any need that may come during our lives and the opportunity offered us by education in this country to appreciate and have capacities for doing things, which we did not have in the past. I think that democracy is going to go through perhaps some of its great crises in the next few years in meeting these very problems. I hope we meet them with courage. I hope we decide that nothing but the best possible education is real service to the people of a democracy and that we decide to pay for that no matter what else we pay for. Because it seems to me that this is really the cornerstone of our whole future happiness. I think that we are starting on a period, if we can keep peace in the world and I have hopes that we can, I think we are starting on a period when we can have more happiness for all people than we've ever had in the past. But we've got to get over thinking of ourselves in one country only. We've got to realize that humanity is living in a very small world and that we are going to be constantly called upon to understand new things, new people, new situations, and to help to meet them.
I went yesterday to the first advisory committee meeting on the Peace Corps. I was very much impressed by the staff that Mr. [Robert "Sergeant"] Shriver has collected and by the way, they are starting on their first projects. They are going to go slowly, pick people slowly, train them well I hope, and I hope they will have great success. Many, many people are applying for the Peace Corps. I think that the thing we should remember is that we are going to learn as people as much as we are going to give or to teach, and I think we should go wherever we go with that knowledge because if we go with the feeling that we are the superior beings of the world we are going to have some very rude awakenings. And it's going to take great self-discipline for our young people particularly, I think, to go to some of these areas. One of the first things that is going to be done is to help build a secondary road system, and this is for engineers and mechanics largely um in Tanganyika. And we had to send out someone from the Public Health Service because we heard a rumor that this was one of the most dangerous parts of the country to exist in. And uh we discovered that it was not, that it could be perfectly habitable, but our young people will have to know that they have to live up to the rules that have been laid down for health. You think them perfectly idiotic sometimes, if any of you happen to be going. You'll be told that you must see that your water is boiled twenty minutes and you think, "Gosh everybody else drinks this water, why shouldn't I?" Well, just remember you were only there for two years you weren't born and brought up there. And that if you don't do this and are sick you're just useless on the job. [Laughs] And so this is part of the self-discipline that going to other areas of the world is going to mean. And I hope very much that a great many young people will have the chance to go and learn as well as teach one of the very first projects has been a project of an exchange in young people who are teaching in um Uganda.
And a short-term project which I happen to be interested in is a project that Harvard has agreed with the Prime Minister of Tanganyika to send for the summer vacation a pilot project of twenty young boys to help in the secondary school education of boys who are coming to this country to college. Because they have learned English, British English, and they find American English hard to get accustomed to when they come to this country. And so the idea is that these Harvard boys will go into the villages and live, and believe me this is going to be an education, an education in survival. [Laughs] But um they are going to teach American history and American English for three months so that the boys who come here in the autumn will not have to waste three months uh because they don't understand our English, and they um find it hard to get along with us as people. This is just an experiment. It's a pilot project. But I think it's one which uh it happens that John Roosevelt, who is particularly interested in this college, my youngest son, his boy is going as one of the twenty. And I rather hope that he is going to learn just as much as he teaches [Laughs] And I think this will happen to a great many of us, as we do, as we take new opportunities which are going to come to all of us. Now I think my closing word to you would be never to disdain the wisdom of people who may not even have literacy but have learned by living much wisdom. But to look upon education as a privilege, not just something that everyone is entitled to but a privilege so that you may increase the depth of your wisdom and knowledge. Be better citizens, better able to live in the kind of a world that we all of us face in the future. And I hope your ambition will be to make life better for us here in this country but at the same time to realize that the world is so small we go forward as humanity. And the rest of the world must have a chance for happiness too.
We have about ten or fifteen minutes remaining and Mrs. Roosevelt has agreed that she would like to answer any questions that any of you might like to direct at her. So the floor is now open for questions. Are there any questions from the floor? Give you a minute or two. Yes, can you speak up Dave so we can-so we can hear you?
What are the main reasons behind the visible [Unclear term] for the tractors overall in exchange for the prisoners at National Hall.
Want me to repeat that? [ER: Oh yes, listen to that. What is it he said?] Yep uh the question is what is the main reason behind the collection for the tractors in the exchange for the prisoners in Cuba?
Well, as you probably know, Mr. Castro made a speech to some Cuban farmers uh in which he said that he would exchange um at the time he said one thousand, but later it was changed to twelve hundred, now it is 1,214 and the prisoners told us that it was any that might happen to be picked up who um in the next few days. Um 1,214 of the fighters who went in to change, uh to make, for a counter-revolution and um [coughs] the um--he said that he would make this exchange for five hundred tractors and some said he said bulldozers. Well we couldn't think that bulldozers would be very valuable to um the farmers uh, but we decided that we would um-- a group of us got together, the three who started this, the Doctor Milton Eisenhower who is president of John Hopkins University and Walter Reuther and myself, Walter Reuther CIO-AFL. And uh so um we sent a telegram asking if this was really a bona fide offer and the telegram had hardly been received when uh well it was two days later. He saw a group of the prisoners um who offered to come over and negotiate and agree that they would come back and they-they were elected by the other prisoners and they gave their word of honor to the other prisoners that they would return if no commitment was made um I think today, by today at one o'clock; they came day before yesterday. If a commitment was made uh they could remain four days longer to negotiate. Well, [coughs] we saw them yesterday in Washington and they told us first the exact things that Castro had laid down. He had laid down the exact kind of tractors that he wanted and specified the numbers of the tractors and so forth.
Well neither Walter Reuther nor Dr. Eisenhower nor I could say that we are specialists in tractors but it seemed to us um in query that the size of these tractors was really not going to be the best thing for the um uh Cuban farmer for producing, as he had said, more food for the people of Cuba, that was part of the speech. So we, they told us, that they had to have a firm commitment and that Castro said this was not an exchange of machines for people, this was a repayment for damage done. Well it doesn't make much difference really whether you call it repayment or not. You get the people if you send the tractors. And so [laughs] we uh felt very strongly that twelve hundred human lives should be saved because these people were fighting for what they hoped uh was right, for what they believed was right. And so, um we agreed to try to raise the money. We rather hope that it will come in small sums, a dollar or so, from millions of people in this country because we feel we'd like to send the names of the people when we send the tractors so as to really show the Cuban people that we are not opposed to them. We want them to get along. We are just opposed to the kind of communist control which has come in there uh since Castro uh has taken power.
Now um we-we made this commitment firmly yesterday and um the men cabled the commitment and we sent a cable um making the commitment, but saying that we would like to send with the men when they went back a small group of experts in machinery and in agriculture to really negotiate the terms, the kind of machinery that was to be sent. Now we don't know whether we have any effect on Mr. Castro. We like to feel the Cuban farmers were getting things that could be very useful, and we are very much afraid that the type of tractors they want are so heavy, and the manufacturers tell us that they could-that they want three hundred disk caterpillar trac-tractors. Well the manufacturers say that the whole of Cuba could be harrowed in three days [Audience and ER laugh] with these tractors. And the two hundred with bulldozers that they want makes some sense because they say that is to build roads and that we-that makes some sense. But the three hundred with-with disks makes no sense at all [laughs]. And so we are only because they also said that it was very likely that being so heavy that if they got in wet ground they just bogged down in the wet ground and they wouldn't, they dig holes but-but--anyway they don't make missiles. They don't make war materials. They can move ground from one place to another and he might use them, I suppose, for fortifications. But uh it wouldn't make very much difference. So um we decided that the twelve hundred odd human lives were worth the whatever tractors had to go in the long run, and uh a group, a group will go of experts when the prisoners go back. And we are hopeful that we will be able to send something which is a little more useful to the Cuban farmer than what they have asked for. Though it does make sense to send the two hundred tractors with blades in front, bulldozers in front.
And so outside of that uh we-we heard exactly what Castro had said. He um if he says that uh he is not taking this as an exchange, of course I know very well what he's thinking about because um before in World War-before World War II, uh Hitler offered to exchange some Jews for machinery. But he wanted war machinery and the war was on and um the situation was rather different then. And-and I think now um um Mr. Castro does not want to have that uh comparison made however, he thinks it is not a pleasant comparison and I quite agree that he shouldn't-he-he is-- it is different but it certainly has enough similarity to make you feel uncomfortable. And um so I, I hope that we will be able to raise the money. He has agreed that he would let out as we deliver. We made one other condition and that was that we get a list of the prisoners and work out a way of identification as they came on. That he had said that he would release them as the tractors came in, so many people for so many tractors um beginning with the least important and going up.
By that he means the people that have rank, do you see [laughs]. And-and the agreement that he told these boys who came over, the ten boys, was that they would be the last. And he reserved the right to have um I think six people he will not send under any circumstances because he considers they have committed war crimes. I don't know what their names are, but I know there are six that he notified the prisoners he wouldn't send under any circumstances. And he wants to negotiate also the exchange of one of the men who is a leader among the freedom fighters and one of his people who in a brawl in Harlem shot a [unclear term: might be "vans wheeler"(53:20)] girl and has been tried and is um and is waiting-awaiting conviction for manslaughter. Of course, I don't suppose he intended to do it. But this is out of our province because that is in the hands of officials and we can't negotiate that particular situation. But um the others we hope will go through because I think it's quite obvious that we have to be able to identify the prisoners. We don't want to send in tractors and get 214 people that have no connection with the freedom fighters [laughs]. So that's very obvious condition that we made. Outside of that, nothing has happened so far. We have-we started, Mr. [Joseph] Dodge in Detroit uh [coughs] who is the director of the budget under President Eisenhower, has agreed to be the treasurer and money will be sent to Tractors for Freedom, um Freedom Box in Detroit. And he will handle all the money, Mr. Dodge. So that's all I can tell you about that.
Thank you. Are there other questions? Over here? Yes.
Mrs. Roosevelt, this is little more than bribery and uh what would uh prohibit this from continuing on uh with Mr. Castro or with other countries like(54:56)] or uh (54:59)]?
Your question is uh as stated this is little more than bribery and what is to prevent this type of thing continuing on with other countries? Is that correct?
Well we don't know at the present time of course that there are going to be any more uh counter-attacks and of course we have a sense of responsibility for these men because unfortunately from my point of view um we did let CIA uh have a great part in this. Now from my point of view that was unfortunate, but some other people didn't think so. This was an inherited um situation that had gone way ahead. And-and um so we do have some responsibility, I think, for these people. And um whether it's bribery or not um I think that human lives are worth something and they are worth more than dollars and therefore I would rather see these people [Applause] because I do have a sense of responsibility to them.
A question over here? Yes Bob?
The question is if the United States had not been officially involved would we have taken the initiative-- [Bob: Or would we have(56:37)]-- [ER: Or would Castro have taken the]-- or would Castro take the initiative.
I can't tell you that because I don't know. Uh but I think of course he felt much surer that we would respond because I think he knows our make up enough to know that we when we are officially involved, even though it is not at the top level, we still have a sense of responsibility [laughs]. And uh I think he thought he had a better chance when he made his-his offer you see that we would take it up because he does know we do value human lives. And um I don't think it is an offer he ever would have made to the Russians [Audience laughs] because he know quite well they wouldn't take it up. But it's an offer that um he, I think, felt that we would feel a responsibility about.
I think we can entertain one more question if there is one. Uh yes Mr. Bernard.
Is uh Castro a gentleman of his word in this particular situation? Can we trust him as far as carrying out the obligations of this? In other words, if we give him 200 tractors, he may say at that point, "Now, no more."
The question is can Castro be trusted?
We are not trusting him a great deal. We-we deliver the tractors and the men come back on the ship that the tractors are delivered on. And the way it's to be uh is to be worked out as to verifying the men as they come on and I think probably, I don't know this because this is one of the things that will be negotiated when they meet with Castro, but um I think probably either the Swiss government or the Canadian government or some other will undertake to oversee the exchange, do you see.
I think I can safely speak for all of us in thanking you very much for taking time from your very busy life to come and share some thoughts with us. Thank you very, very much from all of us.
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About this document
Literacy, Democracy, and Education
Speech at Dutchess Community College
May 23, 1961
Speech at Dutchess Community College PT59M23S
- National Endowment for the Humanities
Eleanor Roosevelt Speeches is a project and publication of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, The George Washington University, Academic Building, Post Hall, Room 312, 2100 Foxhall Road, NW, Washington, DC 20007
Transcribed and published by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 2019-11-27
Transcription created from holdings at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library