Eleanor Roosevelt Graduation Speech

Putney School Commencement, June 1956

(transcribed by Marni Rosner, August 2020)

Ben Rockwell’s introduction: Mrs. Roosevelt, because of your long interest in young people, and because of your effective work in promoting those rights central to the wellbeing of all men, you are no stranger at Putney. It is my rare honor to welcome you as our graduating speaker. 

Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City, 20 December 1940. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt: It is a very great pleasure to be here with you students, and I’m very happy to see Putney. I’ve heard a great deal about it, and to see it is a great pleasure, to meet Mrs. Hinton, and to meet Mr. Rockwell and Mrs. Rockwell is an added pleasure. 

I think you young people who have come to commencement tonight are very fortunate young people. You have had these years in delightful surroundings, the beauty of nature surrounding you everywhere, and with an opportunity to have music as part of your lives, and art, and I think you have spent years in which you could gain the tools which would really make this a true commencement. Because commencement is the finishing of something, a certain number of years, and these particular years that you are finishing tonight, are years when you have obtained the tools with which you are going to shape the rest of your lives. You’ve set your standards, you’ve learned what values I hope you are to live by, and perhaps you’ve learned at least to discipline yourselves mentally, and the more you have learned how to govern yourselves, the more you will be able to use these tools as you go on to the next step in your lives. 

Now most of you will go to college. I remember once when Anna Lord Strauss* whose council you may know, and I, were to receive an award at Bryn Mawr College, she came to me and said “do you think it would be all right for me to mention that it is perhaps a little strange that Bryn Mawr should be giving its award to two women who never went to college.” 

That isn’t because, at least in my case, because I didn’t want to go, but it was a great many years ago and I was brought up by my grandmother who did not think that you should have four more years if you were a girl, to prepare for life, you should begin your life at the age of 18. 

And she did not I think quite realize that you begin your life much younger, you begin your preparation when you are very, very young, and it’s a good thing to have the years of college if you can possibly have them, because you can learn even better how to use the tools of education.

I think a great many young people feel that much that they learn is useless. Why are you made to learn? Perhaps you never have been made to learn anything, but I was made to learn a number of things that I thought were quite useless, and I would like to tell you that I have never found anything I learned was useless. Everything, even the mere fact of mastering something that you don’t like is of value. It teaches you somehow to live better in a world where very often you have to master things that you don’t like to have learn. 

And now most of you will go to college and there you will have, here you had a good deal of freedom, but there you will have more freedom, you will have the opportunity to choose perhaps even more widely than you have had before. 

Eleanor Roosevelt getting off a plane at the Lučko Airport near Zagreb, Croatia, 26 July 1953. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now you are a generation that is coming into a world where you haven’t so much time to live without purpose because the world you are coming into is a developing world and developing so quickly that everybody is finding that they have to have a purpose and a purpose when they are still quite young. Even a generation younger than I, my children’s generation when they went to college, could say in a light hearted way, “Why mother, why do you fuss about our marks? We got by.” Yes, they got by, and college was to some of them an opportunity, and it will be to you, to make new friends, to have new experiences, and that is all good, but fundamentally what you want to do in college is to develop the aptitudes that you have and determine what are the purposes for which you want to use your lives.

Now you will think that I’m asking you to revalue, to decide so young how you want to use your lives. Perhaps that would be so if you were not coming into a world like our world. Our world has changed very greatly and it is going to change. I heard a gentleman who was very conversant with the various new discoveries that were coming, the other day say, “Well, in the last 60 years we have seen really remarkable developments.” Some of you will not remember the time when some of these things didn’t exist so you will not think of them as new. 

But I can remember when the first telephone was put into the house in which I lived. And I can remember meeting the first automobile on a country road when I was driving a horse in a two-wheeled cart and the horse and the cart and I went over the fence and into the field. Now, that was a complete surprise to the horse and a complete surprise to me. I had never seen an automobile before. That was pretty strange. And as to the airplane, why it would seem, when I was young, something unheard of, it was just something that was dreamed up. And then television, radio, radar, and the atom. All those things, and yet this scientist could say to me we haven’t forgotten the next 60 years will see far greater changes than you have seen in the last 60 years. 

The world is going to change.

Well, one of the things I think we can forecast right now is that the world is going to be a very much smaller world. You are going to have as your close neighbors people that your grandparents and I never even dreamt of coming into contact with. And they are going to be your close neighbors, because when I was in Oakridge, Tennessee last winter, one of those wonderful scientists said to me now, right now, if we develop Atoms for Peace, speeds will increase so fast that we can be in the heart of Africa or the heart of Asia as quickly as today you fly from New York to Chicago. 

So, some of you may find yourselves working, not just traveling, but working with people that you have given very little thought to. And one of the problems today of our nation, is that we have given so little thought and we’ve been busy developing our own country, we have given so little thought to the other peoples of the world. 

And you are coming into a time when you not only have to think of how you are going to live your lives, what you are going to accomplish, how you are going to earn a living, and how you are going to enjoy earning a living and living your life, but at the same time you will have to think about what your country’s place is in a world which has become so much smaller, so much smaller that what happens here, or anywhere else, has repercussions, right away, all over the world. 

I think that it’s one of the things we have to remember. For instance, you’ll find that sometimes our Statesmen will still talk as though what they said was meant entirely for home consumption, and yet what they said will have an influence on the thinking of the people in Indonesia, or in Japan, and what we do here has immediate repercussions all over the world. As in Tokyo, when a little incident happened here which rated perhaps two paragraphs on the inner page of a metropolitan newspaper. An airport manager in Houston, Texas asked the Indian Ambassador if he would move, with his aide, into a segregated dining room. Mr. Dulles, our Secretary of State, apologized the next day and that should close the incident. But in Tokyo it rated a banner headline across the whole front page of the paper, and every single press conference which you were in from that time on somebody said “Is that what you mean by Democracy in the United States?”

And just what do we mean? Just what are the standards that we are really trying to achieve? Granted, that no one ever fully achieves the heights that they have set for their government or for themselves as a way of life. But what exactly are we trying, striving to achieve? That’s something all of you will have to make up your mind to in the next few years because you happen to live in a country where you have the most difficult kind of government in the world. A government in which you must take part because if you do not take part then it doesn’t function.

No Democracy can really function, and no Republic such as ours with a representative elected through a people in state and national legislatures can possibly work unless the people as a whole are an educated people, a people that know what are the problems before their government and their nation, and that know very well where they want to go. Where do they want their influence? A great country like ours, stronger than any other nation today. Where do we want our influence to be felt? 

Sometimes I think, in the last few years, we’ve let ourselves to come to fear, and one of the things that I would beg of you is never to allow yourself to be carried away by fear. It is the one thing which will lead you to make poor decisions and no decisions, and when you make no decisions, it is sometimes almost as bad as making a poor decision. 

And fear is no way to meet new problems.

Granted, that you will have to say many, many times “I do not know the answer. I do not know where we should go.” But at least try, try something, and if you make a mistake have the courage to acknowledge your mistake and start on something else. Because to be afraid to make a, to be afraid to make up your mind because you may be wrong, that will lead to very difficult situations. 

And also, never be afraid to say when you find you must change your mind and you have made a mistake. Never stick to a thing you’ve learned is wrong because you are afraid that someone will say “that was a weakness.” 

It’s much stronger to acknowledge that you made a mistake and that you want to try again. And that you will find holds good in your work, in your responsibilities as citizens, and in your personal relationships. 

I think that in a country like ours we are going to find that our young people carry more and more responsibility at younger ages than before, and that means that they will have greater opportunity for exploring the world and the kinds of things that exist in the world. We must open as many doors to knowledge as we possibly can, and I doubt very much you will grow in knowledge and in wisdom by having certain things closed off as being things you should not know about. I believe the more you know the safer you are, and the more you can learn through discussion, through meetings of minds with other people, the more you can do that and d 

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At this time there is a sweep which is taking the peoples right along their feet. Suddenly they’ve come to realize that they might be free. Many of them have been subject peoples for many years. They might not only be free, but it might not be necessary to live with disease and poverty and misery all their lives. When that sweeps the world then I think a nation like ours has got to understand that they have a responsibility and they cannot shirk it because if they do it is not just the other people who are going to suffer, but we are eventually going to suffer. 

How did we get this strength, this economic position that makes us stand out in the world today? Partly by the Grace of God, partly by the fact that our young men who fought in World War 2 in faraway places in the world. And as a result, their whole land was intact at the end of WW2. 

The scene after the air raids of 29 December 1940. (Getty Images)

Now we were not the center of the financial world before WW2. London was the center and I stood on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Autumn of ’42 after the blitz and the fire in the heart of London, and as far as I could see there was nothing but rubble. Nothing. And that had once been the center of the busiest financial area of the world. And a funny little story came to my mind, my husband used to tell it sometimes when he went into Groton, which is many, many years ago. They had an examination they called a general information examination and they asked him, they asked the incoming child, this question “Who is the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street?”* And my husband remembered that his father, as a little boy, had taken him down into the city of London and had pointed to the Bank of England and said “There is the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.” And he was the only boy who was able to answer that question, and it was just plain like nothing else. 

But as I looked at the ruins of the City of London I thought “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has had a blow that it will take her a long time to recover from.” And that is one of the reasons that today the financial center of the world is here, it’s because we were left intact at home. 

I saw acres and acres of homes both in the country areas and in the city, totally destroyed. Before they could rebuild, they had to clear away the rubble and where were they going to get help? There was no other place in the world, but from the United States where our productive capacity was greater at the end of the World War 2, than it had been at the beginning. 

We must remember that because it does put a special responsibility on us. I don’t know whether nations are chosen at special periods of history for a special destiny, but it looks to me as though we have been chosen to fulfill a destiny, and a destiny which carries responsibility for the world. 

And you, you are going to be the ones to carry that responsibility. You are going to have time to fit yourselves for whatever you wish to do, but whatever you wish to do, personal, and it may be, earn your own living in any way you decide to do, will still have a bearing on what happens to your country and what your country does in the world. And you cannot get away from being a citizen of the most powerful country in the world. Sometimes I think we try to get away, but something always happens to bring us back. And so, it is as well to accept it. It may not always be our burden, it may pass to somebody else, it certainly will unless we deal with it well and courageously. But we have now the opportunity. There are other ideas in the world besides ours, we think ours have a value for individual people far greater than any other that the world can offer today.

But we have to prove that value.


Eleanor Roosevelt holding poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in English), Lake Success, New York. November 1949. (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It won’t just be accepted without any proof. We have to show what we are, what we mean to be, and what we mean to do in our own nation and in the world. How we meet our own problems. We have a very big one now in our Civil Rights problem here, and how we meet it is going to be something of a gauge as to our greatness as the rest of the world looks on. Because 2/3 of the peoples of the world are Colored Peoples and they all of them want freedom and equality, and they do not like to be looked down upon. 

This is a changing world and a world full of new things. I would just say to you, who have this commencement, that I am grateful that you had the years of training here. The kind of years when you have been allowed to think for yourselves, where you have been given the opportunity of gaining tools.

I hope you will use the years of preparation still before you to the very best advantage, and then I hope you will go out in the world, sure of what you wish to do, but sure also that it cannot be a wholly selfish life. It must be a life that is lived to make your own success and that of your parents, but also to make the success for many peoples of the world that have as yet had very little opportunity. And in closing I would say, God Bless You Everyone, may you have the qualities of character and of mind that will give you the courage to live in one of the most exciting and adventurous periods of history. (applause) 

Followed by Putney School Students performing, singing JS Bach’s Magnificat. 


*Anna Lord Strauss Human rights activist. Anna Lord Strauss was an influential civic leader that was mainly a feminist/women’s right activist, and perhaps one of her greatest accomplishments was her push for the creation of the United Nations 

+ ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ is the nickname of the Bank of England which has stood in its current location, right in the heart of the City of London since 1734. But was there really an old lady of Threadneedle Street and what had she to do with banking? There was indeed an old lady…Sarah Whitehead was her name. Sarah had a brother called Philip, a disgruntled former employee of the bank, who was found guilty of forgery in 1811, and executed for his crime. Poor Sarah was so shocked she became “unhinged” and every day for the next 25 years she went to the Bank and asked to see her brother. When she died, she was buried in the old churchyard that later became the bank’s garden, and her ghost has been seen on many occasions.

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