(CNN) - Democracy needs an educated and well-informed population to work, President Barack Obama said Sunday in a commencement speech at one of the nation's historically black colleges.
Obama told graduates at Virginia's Hampton University that he hoped their education had opened their minds, and added, "Now that your minds have been opened, it's up to you to keep them that way."
"And it will be up to you to open minds that remain closed that you meet along the way," Obama said. "That, after all, is the elemental test of any democracy: whether people with differing points of view can learn from each other, work with each other, and find a way forward together."
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Obama said that "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be."
"What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted founding generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment - called America - wouldn't work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were
apathetic, if its citizens checked out and left democracy to those who didn't have their best interests of all the people at heart," Obama said.
"It could only work if each of us stayed engaged; if we held our government accountable; if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship," he said.
Obama also said the graduates at Hampton's 140th commencement ceremony were "ahead of the curve," and joked that "All those checks that you or your parents wrote to Hampton will pay off."
"But I don't have to tell you that too many folks back home aren't as well prepared," Obama said. "By any number of different yardsticks, African-Americans are being outperformed by their white classmates, as are
Hispanic-Americans. Students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter their skin color."
He called on the new graduates to not only succeed in their work, but also to serve as role models and mentors in their communities.