Former representative Shirley Chisholm admonished Howard University's graduating students yesterday that the worth of their education will be determined by what they do in the future for their fellow men, especially the less fortunate.

Chisholm, who was elected from Brooklyn, N.Y., and served in Congress from 1968 until she decided not to run again in 1982, is now a professor at Mount Holyoke College. She told the more than 2,000 graduates to "ask questions, demand answers and do not put your degrees on a shelf and forget them."

Chisholm, who received an honorary doctor of laws, was among six persons awarded honorary degrees. Pearl Bailey received an honorary doctor of music degree and photographer James Van DerZee received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

The day's brilliant skies seemed to dispel, at least for a while, the bleak economic forecasts and slim job opportunities that face this year's graduates. The students added colorful notes of their own to Howard Stadium, where the commencement ceremonies were held, in the form of brightly hued balloons that they released as their degrees were conferred.

University President James Cheek, talking about economic conditions, warned, "We face an adversary more subtle than in years past but just as formidable."

Chisholm said that the decisions of student leaders of a decade ago to pursue "personal activities" rather than "political action" created a lack of concern that allowed Reaganomics to flourish.

"Today we have a crisis of confidence," Chisholm said. "The national spirit has been demoralized. People are disgusted and apathetic and have checked out of the system, believing it is impossible to make meaningful change. Now we must channel idealism, energy and talent of youth to stem the tide of national despair," she said.

She called on the graduates to use their "volunteer strength" for community efforts and prepare to enter the political process. "The political and social climate of today is not something we are willing to live with, but without action we will have the same unhappy and unhealthy future.

"Nobody is going to give you anything because you're a member of a minority or because you're at the bottom of the economic ladder. You will get what you deserve and deserve what you get," she said.

Also awarded honorary degrees at yesterday's ceremonies were Coy Eklund, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States; Dr. William Henry Greene, trustee emeritus and a graduate of Howard's medical school, and Dr. Luther H. Foster, president emeritus of Tuskegee Institute.