Eleanor Roosevelt's Words

Edited by Allida M. Black, PhD, Director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers
for reading by Jane Alexander on April 2, 2006


"Education," Eleanor Roosevelt often said, "is the cornerstone of liberty." And she should know. She began life as a history teacher. She wrote more on education than she did on human rights. And she rarely turned down an opportunity to visit a school - refusing to cancel after she had been hit by a car. "Young people are the rock upon which I stand."

America owed its children - and education, after housing and food, was the major gift it could provide them. Not just as a right but as the essential tool the nation needed to lead.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed we could not fulfill our responsibilities as citizens if we were not educated. History, geography, foreign languages, math, science and English formed her canon - and each were taught across the disciplines. She loved to quote James Madison: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance."

But she railed against those who promoted "education for survival. This is a hideous concept. This is placing the bogey man of fear at the forefront of our objectives. It is not fear, it is freedom we must maintain."

In her final book, written when she was 78, Eleanor Roosevelt told us that "we must teach the young how to learn and where to find the information they need. The mind must be trained, rather than the memory . . . The mind must be formed as an efficient working tool, so that education will be a continuing process, rather than a matter of learning by rote."

I believe the basic contest of the future will not be settled by bombs but by the amount and quality of education." But this will never happen if the country "spends more money on alcohol, on tobacco, and on cosmetics than it does one education.

The environment

We all know Eleanor Roosevelt loved to garden. How many of us know that she loved to read irrigation maps, that she worried that strip mining would devastate West Virginia and the mountains of the west, and that in the late 1950s she flirted with an early recycling plan.

But today, let us just listen to what she said in 1948 about one of the most pressing issues of our time - American dependence on foreign oil:

I have been wondering for a long time why some of our own defense officials do not put more emphasis on finding a good substitute for oil and worry less about where more oil is to come from. Our people are ingenious. New discoveries are all around us, and when we have to make them, we nearly always do.
For instance, if the war had not made them important, the sulfa drugs and penicillin might still be undeveloped, because it was expensive to do the necessary experimentation. But when these drugs became essential, the expense made no difference. If it is essential to find a substitute for oil or rubber or any other material, I have faith that it can be done, because it has been done in the past.


Eleanor Roosevelt understood the cost of peace, and campaigned to have Americans understand it too.

We will have to want peace, want it enough to pay for it, pay for it in our own behavior and in material ways. We will have to want it enough to overcome our lethargy and go out and find all those in other countries who want it as much as we do.

This will take work:
We have to understand things that we have never understood or really cared about before, things that we were glad to turn our backs on, things that we hoped profoundly would never be our business. Today it is our business, if we don't want war.

Don't let's fool ourselves that another war will see us come away scot free again. . . We are going to examine what we do believe in and why, and we are going to look at the rest of the world, at least we are going to try to look at what other people need and what they believe in and what their fears and desires are

Let's stop counting entirely on individual strength and try to build up collective strength, not just collective military strength but collective moral and spiritual and economic strength, so that the world may be able to live in the future. Hunger, lack of opportunity, poverty, unhappy people-they make war; they make revolutions, and there are no more unreachable places. An epidemic today can reach us just as easily from Europe or from the Far East as if it started right in our midst.

Eleanor Roosevelt knew this would be difficult, but she challenged us to do the work. But she didn't pull any punches in her instructions:

We want to avert war. But . . . we seem to have forgotten to weigh our values and to realize that we have to pay for the things we want. The payment which can bring about friendly and peaceful solutions is infinitely less costly than the payments which will have to be made if we are going to be any enemy to all the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt knew war intimately. She walked upon the bloated, unburied bodies soldiers slaughtered in World War I. She flew in uninsulated military aircraft through combat airspace to Guam, the Phillippines, and 13 other islands to visit American troops. She walked hundreds of miles in hospital corridors, worked in emergency rooms, and ate with the troops. And she began to carry a prayer that would stay with her for the rest of her life:

Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask and to answer "am I worth dying for?"

So what would Eleanor Roosevelt say if she were with us today? She would say what she said throughout her life: that "we are all on trial to show what democracy means." And to do that:

. . . It depends on what each of us does, what we consider democracy means and what we consider freedom in a democracy means and whether we really care about it enough to face ourselves and our prejudices and to make up our minds what we really want our nation to be, and what its relationship is to be to the rest of the world.

The day we know that then we'll be moral and spiritual leaders, and I imagine it's you people gathered here in this room who are going to do a great deal of the thinking and the actual doing because a good many of us are not going to see the end of this period. You are going to live in a dangerous world for a quite a while I guess, but it's going to be an interesting and adventurous one. I wish you the courage to face it. I wish you the courage to face yourselves and when you know what you really want to be and when you know what you really want to fight for, not in a war but to fight for in order to gain a peace, then I wish for you imagination and understanding. God bless you. May you win.