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E. F. (Edward Fletcher) Swinney

Some Proper Ambitions For College Men

Address of E. F. Swinney, Esq., Of Kansas City, Missouri, To The Graduating Class, June 12, 1912

I am going to talk to you for a little while on "Some Proper Ambitions for College Men." What I may say, however, is applicable to all earnest, honest young men. But it is particularly applicable to the college man, for he is trained by his schooling to put into practice the precepts announced. His college life has taught him to reason accurately, has cultivated and developed his memory, has inculcated in him self-control, and has taught him to apply principles and deal with new combinations. To the college man the world looks for future leadership in commerce as well as in Church and in State, or in the learned professions. No longer is he the exception among men; he has come to be the rule.

When I speak of ambition, I do not mean the mere desire to hand your name down to future generations, or to perpetuate it in monument or temple. Such ambitions as these have been the undoing of thousands, and it was such ambitions that the master poet had in mind when he said:

"Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition;
By that sin fell the angels."

Indeed, my subject and my talk have nothing to do with your personal ambitions. I care not whether you expect to be a soldier and write your name higher than Napoleon's, or a preacher and surpass Spurgeon, or a painter and put Angelo to shame, or an orator and excel Cicero, or a statesman and eclipse the fame of Jefferson. The impelling force behind all such ambitions is fame, and Pope never wrote truer lines than when he said:

"And what is fame? The meanest have their day;
The greatest can but blaze and pass away."

No, my friends, the ambitions of which I shall speak have no such selfish motives as their basis, and yet, I promise you, their attainment will yield you sweeter and more lasting rewards than usually come to soldier, preacher, artist, orator, or statesman. And in addition, I promise that each of you may attain them.

Foremost of these proper ambitions, and furnishing the foundation stone on which all the others must rest, should be the ambition to build character. By character I mean fixing for all time what you are and what you stand for in the world. Character differentiates man from all other animate beings and at its best enables him to most nearly approach the "image and likeness of God." An eagle confined in a cage or fettered to a stake, or with wings close bound to his body, may, during years, breathe, take food and move about, but he is not living the life he should enjoy or for which nature intended him. He longs to soar aloft into the vast blue heights of heaven, to feel new zest and strength as he speeds through the billowy waves of ether and views the universe from on high. So, too, a man without character may, for the allotted three score years and ten, or even for four score years, pass a mere nominal existence, but it cannot be truly said that such a man has lived. The God-given traits have not been allowed to develop unless he have character. He is born, exists, and dies, and the same is true of the lowest created animal. Halley's comet, traveling at the rate of three million miles a day through an orbit passing beyond the uttermost planet known to our solar system, and requiring three-quarters of a century to complete its circuit, in all its course casts not its rays upon anything in world or celestial body so invaluable and so essential as that intangible, unpurchasable, indestructible verity we call character. Intangible, its weight is beyond estimate; unpurchasable, it is within the reach of the poorest and beyond the greed of the richest; indestructible, it is delicate as a flower, yet more lasting than granite. Once gained it can never be lost, and its abiding place is where thieves cannot break through and steal.

Do not confuse character with reputation, so often mistaken as its twin brother. Character is what you are, and know yourself to be; reputation is what men think you are. It is character by report, gotten without merit and lost without deserving. Character is a verity; reputation a bubble. Character is eternal; reputation for a day.

And now, would you know the key that opens the door to character? It was furnished by a certain wise man more than three thousand years ago when he set down in Holy Writ, "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." And then, a thousand years later the great Apostle of the Gentiles gave us the rule for the right use of the key when he said, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, think on these things." The experience and teaching of the centuries have demonstrated the absolute truth of Solomon's key and of Paul's rule. Of yourselves and in yourselves and by your thoughts you build your character.

And right here let me mention another closely allied fact now recognized by modern science. Our bodies are so constituted that good thoughts, good will, and kindly feelings are powerful tonics and great assistants to good health. Ill will, bad thoughts, hatred, malice, and like conditions of mind, on the other hand, engender poisons in our systems which tend to weaken our vital forces and may totally destroy them. If, therefore, you would attain the ambition to have the right sort of character, and have a sane mind in a sound body, I cannot too strongly urge that you control your thoughts and let them dwell only on those things that are true, pure, honest, and just.

N ext, let your ambition be to get knowledge, and by knowledge I mean acquaintance with things ascertained or ascertainable. "Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven," says Shakespeare.

In the usual college course so many subjects are taken that the student is able to make little more than a beginning in any branch of learning. He is taught the method of gaining knowledge, but his real learning remains to be acquired after he has left campus and college hall. Knowledge is to be gained by experience, by reading, and by research, and for him who would acquire it:

"The time to be starting is now, to-day.
  Don't dally; begin!
No man has ever been ready to start,
  Nor ever will be;
You may fail ere you reach where your hopes are set,   But try it and see."

The domain of literature awaiting you is broad as the universe itself. It has been truly said that "Of the making of books there is no end," and no man can even hope to read and master them all, but each can make his own the great works of history, of biography, of ethics, and of art. After all, it is the books you master and digest that add to your fund of knowledge. Your library may consist only of the five-foot shelf, but make its contents your own. Or it may be that you will have access to the great libraries of the world; then be careful in your selections. Seek those books which broaden and uplift while adding to your fund of knowledge. Be not satisfied to dwell always in the vale--climb to the summit and from that height let your eye sweep the horizon that stretches out before you. Other brains have conceived the thoughts and other hands have written the words that you can make your own. Above all things, never cease to study and to work. "The recipe for perpetual ignorance is to be satisfied with your knowledge," and the span of life, after all, is only sufficient to enable one to gain for one's self a small part of the things ascertained and ascertainable.

I make no special recommendation as to any particular line of study. This you must determine for yourself. The natural sciences, botany, hygiene, mental philosophy, are all broadening and valuable. Indeed, I know no line of earnest study that will not add to your fund of knowledge. Just at the present time sociology and civics are attracting particular attention and present for solution some of the deepest and most important problems. Upon their correct solution will largely depend the success or failure of governments and the happiness of the human race. I know of no more attractive field for the research, thought, and reading of sincere, educated, and discerning young men.

In your attainment of knowledge do not forget that the highest art is in the art of living. No matter how. extensive your learning, how wide your reading, how deep your culture, if you know not how to live, you will fall far short of reaching that ambition I have called knowledge. It is here that so many men of learning have failed. Content to acquire, they have refused to give, and the highest good can come only to him who gives of his life freely to his fellow man. It has been well said that "He has learned to live who loves much, laughs often, has gained the respect of intelligent men and the affection of little children; who fills his allotted niche in life and accomplishes his assigned tasks; who, when he dies, will leave the world better than he found it; who appreciates the beauties of earth and expresses his appreciation; who looks for the best in others and gives to others the best he has. Such a life is an inspiration and its memory will be a benediction."

Then next to your ambition for knowledge add the desire for wisdom. Wisdom may be defined as the power or faculty of forming the fittest and truest judgment in all matters presented for consideration. Experience is its best teacher, but it does not follow that it always comes with age. Its possession presupposes some knowledge, but it has a higher and broader meaning than mere knowledge. It has been said that "Knowledge is power," and if this be true, then wisdom is given us as a guide to the proper exercise of that power. It is wisdom that enables us not only to decide between the positively bad and the positively good, but when conditions are complicated and appearances obscure and misleading, to decide between things good and things better. Wisdom, unlike prudence, always selects the right means to attain the right ends; always condemns the false and approves the true. In a word, it may be summed up as educated common sense. It is wisdom which gives that proper self-confidence so necessary to success. Some one has said that "Self-distrust is the cause of most of our failures. In the assurance of strength there is strength, and they are the weakest, however strong, who have no faith in themselves or their powers." Therefore, none of your ambitions should be stronger than that to gain wisdom. It is a cheerful companion and an intimate and powerful friend; it points us to the paths of peace and pleasantness and leads us to them; it strengthens our mental vision and enables us to see that which we failed to discern before.

Next, I name happiness as worthy of your ambitions, and it is an ambition the attainment of which lies most nearly within the reach of everyone because it is so largely a matter of philosophy and choice. It may be found in the hovel and it shuns not the palace, although often driven from both. Not all conditions in this world are ideal, and if you would be happy you must train your minds to dwell on what is . bright and cheerful and learn not to brood over what is gloomy and depressing. God intended every man to be happy and put it in the power of every one to be so, and whosoever falls short has only himself to blame.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear what is happiness. Mere self-indulgence or pleasure pursued as an end without regard to duty is not happiness but only a temporary gratification of personal desire. Such spurious happiness is nearly always attained at the cost of one's best assets, and usually ends in sorrow and degradation. At best it is short lived and always it is selfish. Happiness, on the contrary, may be a permanent state, and its attainment, so far from calling for mere selfish gratification, calls for respect for the rights of others and imposes self-control as its cardinal requisite. Happiness is freedom from the tyranny of selfish desire and passions and results from living in accord with the highest laws, human and divine. In its pursuit thrice blest is he whose daily companions are work, hope, and love. Physical health is one of its aids, though alone it cannot produce happiness, and due rest and recreation are among its best assistants. Its guarantor, however, is a life of integrity, activity, and progress. Home, friends, congenial marriages, and children, all conduce to its attainment, but, after all, it is by yourself and within yourself that you must eventually find it. Closely allied to happiness and always attendant upon it is contentment. By this I mean that state of not pining after that which is beyond your reach—of being contented with what you are and not envious of another. True happiness always carries with it contentment.

Last, but far from least, should be your ambition to lead a life of service. The great Teacher never uttered a profounder truth than when he said, "Whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant." The blessings of liberty and civilization which we enjoy so abundantly, and often appear to esteem so lightly; the manifold things that go so far towards our happiness and which we accept as matters of course; the best that the storehouse of humanity contains for us—all these are due to somebody's service, to somebody's toil, to somebody's forethought, to somebody's sacrifice. We of this generation are the heirs of the thoughts and labors of unnumbered generations that have gone before, and if we are only consumers and not producers, then, indeed, we are but spendthrift's heirs and cursed, not blessed, by our inheritance. Freely We have received and freely let us give.

The world to-day, as at no time in its history, is calling for men willing to serve and with their best. The sweat shops, the slums, corruption in politics, commercial dishonesty, the scourge of consumption, and intemperance are but a few of the evils that can and must be abolished. It is to the college man, trained and willing to serve, that the world looks for this consummation.

"There are loyal hearts and spirits brave,
  There are souls that are pure and true;
Then give to the world the best you have,
  And the best shall come to .you."

Let these be your ambitions: Build character, gain knowledge, seek wisdom, cultivate happiness, and serve always.


Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1912, pp. 24-29

Edward F. Swinney was president of First National Bank of Kansas City, Missouri, from 1900 to 1927, then he assumed the role of board chairman. He was born in Campbell County, Virginia in 1857 and attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute from 1872 to 1875. He went to Kansas City in 1887 as cashier of the First National Bank. He died at age 89 on October 24, 1946.