Ronald Reagan picture

Address at Commencement Exercises at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey

May 21, 1983

I've been sitting here as the protocol was recognized of acknowledging all those distinguished people who are here, and then, before I could think of anything proper to maybe avoid that, Pearl Bailey, as she has done to so many for so many years, topped anything that I could think of. Ditto. [Laughter]

I thank you all, though, very much for inviting me here today, and I'm deeply honored by the degree that you've chosen to confer on me—and especially so because I'm sharing it with two people I greatly admire. Gary Nardino is a man of true achievement in an industry that has played a big part in my life. And Pearl Bailey is a great lady and a long-time, dear friend who combines the wonderful gift of entertaining with an even more precious one, the ability to lift the human spirit and inspire it. And I'm honored to be in such company.

At the same time, as has been acknowledged today, that you are here, filled with mixed emotions; so am I. This honorary degree—you see, I've nursed a feeling of guilt for a half a century that the first one I got was honorary. [Laughter] Besides, if there's one place where I always feel at home, it's an athletic field— [laughter] -even if you don't play football on it anymore. [Laughter] Come to think of it, I don't play football anymore. [Laughter] Anyway, I understand that the baseball team has a good season.

And, Dr. D'Alessio, speaking as one President to another, I was very impressed to learn that when you joined Seton Hall, the university was operating in the red. And in 2 short years, you've turned things around. What's your secret? [Laughter] And, please, don't just tell me. Tell the Congress. [Laughter] It's already too late for me to break your 2-year record, but we need all the help we can get in Washington to work toward a balanced budget.

Something I've noticed in attending graduations over the years is the way time has a habit of catching up with you. First, you start to notice that you're older than the students. And next, you begin to realize that you're older than most of the faculty. [Laughter] But today marks a new first for me. I'm even senior to the Jubilarians who are gathered here today. [Laughter] They graduated in 1933. Well, I'm class of '32- [laughter] —Eureka College. And you immediately say to yourself, "Where is that?" And if I tell you, you won't know any more than you know now. [Laughter] It's in Eureka, Illinois. [Laughter]

That was 51 years ago or, to put it another way, just 76 years after the founding of Seton Hall. To you members of the class of '83, I'm sure that seems like a long, long time ago, and you're right. The world has seen things happen—great miracles and great tragedies that no one could have dreamt of 51 years ago. Back then, the big breakthroughs were propeller aircraft that could fly as far as Paris, movies that could talk, and a thing called radio that had a voice but no picture. I heard a little boy one day come in the house to his mother and say that he'd just been next door with his friend. And he said, "You know, they've got a box over there that you can listen to, and you don't have to look at anything." [Laughter]

Yet, if today's technology is more sophisticated than anything we had around in 1932, some things—and some very important things—remain the same. Just to give you one example, I can remember thinking, on my graduation day, that it was a time for me and my friends and my teachers and my family. And the commencement speaker seemed to be an intruder at a private party—an outsider at an intimate celebration of moments shared all leading up to this very special day.

Now, I can't believe that it feels very much different for you today, even though the Spirit of St. Louis has been outpaced by rockets to the Moon, and today's high technology makes the radios and the films and industrial efforts of that earlier day seem as remote as the Stone Age. I know there's some of you probably think that my first degree was engraved in a stone tablet. [Laughter]

I know that surface appearances have changed a lot. Looking back, for example, to Seton Hall's freshman rules for 1927, I notice that red caps and black socks were "to be worn at all times" by freshmen and that knickers, bow ties, and mustaches were banned. [Laughter] About the only place left today where you encounter regulations that silly is in the Federal bureaucracy, and we're trying our best to get rid of them there. [Laughter]

What I do sense here today—and whenever I visit with young Americans—and that is the same unquenchable spirit that I remember among my own classmates at Eureka College so long ago. Ours, too, was a time of great change and uncertainty. Many of the things that our parents had taught us to take for granted suddenly seemed very fragile or even lost. Economic excess, lack of vision among world leaders, and the forces of change had brought on a Great Depression and unleashed evil and extremism in many parts of the globe.

I know that on this day, you look forward with some trepidation, wondering if there's a place for you in a world that is sunk in a deep recession. Well, the classes of 1932 faced a world in the very bottom of the Great Depression, when unemployment was greater than 25 percent. The situation was the same for the class of '33. It hadn't changed any. The Federal Government used radio with regular announcements every day urging people not to leave home seeking work, because there were no jobs. But here we are a half a century later, and it's been a half a century of ever-increasing opportunity for us and adventure. And we've found that life has been good.

We had our share of suffering in America, greater suffering than this country has ever known since. But something held true, something that still lives in the American spirit, your spirit. More than half a century and countless other trials later, some of that spirit is captured, appropriately enough, in the words that the late Cardinal Spellman used to describe Mother Seton herself. "She was not," he wrote, "a mystical person in an unattainable niche. She battled against odds in the trials of life with American stamina and cheerfulness; she worked and succeeded with American efficiency."

Well, these qualities of faith and common sense and dedication, if you can cultivate and keep them, will see you through lifetimes that will not only be rich in meaning for you as individuals but which will also leave behind a better country and a better world. And that'll make all the effort that you've put into your school years and all the sacrifice of parents and other loved ones who've helped to see you through worth many times their cost.

You who are graduating have taken virtually your entire lives to reach this moment. To you it seems like a very long time. But there are others here today, parents and grandparents who share this day with you. And as they look back, it seems as if the journey only started yesterday. As a matter of fact, they can remember when if you took their hand, your hands were so tiny they only could encompass one finger. But you left an imprint on that one finger that they can still feel today. So, for everyone, it's a day of nostalgia, of looking back on a montage of memories and, for you, looking ahead, perhaps a little fearfully, seeking a clue to what the future holds.

And possibly that explains the paradox of calling the day "graduation" at the same time that we call it "commencement." For even as you graduate today and commence life's journey in the outside world, you draw closer to the day when you, in your turn, will be the parents of another generation of young Americans. And, not long after that, your children will begin their own schooldays.

What kind of a world is it that you face now, on the brink of a new chapter in your lives; and what kind of a world will your children, in their time, face? Someone once said of our country that "We soared into the 20th century on the wings of invention and the winds of change." Well, in a few years' time, we Americans will soar into the 21st century, and again it will be on the wings of invention and the winds of change. And you will have been responsible for much of that change. In large measure, the quality of your individual lives, and your children's lives, will be determined by the quality of the education that you've received—at home and at school—to prepare you for this new world of challenge, innovation, and opportunity.

Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said that the best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time. In this modern age, it often seems to come a little more quickly than that. Our nation is speeding toward the future at this very moment. We can see it coming, if not in sharp detail at least in broad outline.

In your history books you've read about the Industrial Revolution. Well, today, we're living the beginnings of another revolution—a revolution ranging from tiny microchips to voyages into the infinity of space; from information retrieval systems that can bring all of the great literature and films and music within reach of a family video unit, to new methods of health care and healing that will add years of full active existence to your life spans.

The other day I was shown a little tiny piece of fiber. It looked almost like something of a decoration. I was told that this was part of a satellite system that can transmit the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in 3 seconds.

But for you to take advantage of all these awesome new advances—and for your children to—we must forge an education system capable of meeting the demands of change. And the sad fact is that, today, such a system does not exist in its entirety. Oh, there are plenty of outstanding schools-present company included—and thousands of dedicated teachers and school administrators. But, taken as a whole, we have to feel that many of our high schools are not doing the job they should.

Since 1963 Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have demonstrated a virtually unbroken decline. Thirty-five of our States require only i year of math for a high school diploma, and 36 require only 1 year of science. When compared to students in other industrialized nations, we've begun to realize that many of ours place badly. And it's been estimated that half of our country's gifted young people are not performing up to their full potential. That's a criminal waste of our most precious natural resource, you, our sons and daughters.

Now, there was a time, not too long ago, when the solution to this problem would have been summed up by most politicians in one big five-letter word: "money." Just pour more money on the problem, the conventional wisdom went, and it would go away.

Well, they tried that approach and it failed. In spite of all those stories you may have been hearing about spending cutbacks, total expenditures in the Nation's public schools this year, according to the National Education Association, are expected to reach $116.9 billion. Now, that's up 7 percent from last year and more than double what it was just 10 years ago. So, if money was the answer, the problem would have been shrinking rather than growing for the last 10 years.

Right about now, I expect some of you are saying to yourselves, "Well, that's what I would expect to hear from a fellow like that. He's a conservative." But don't take my word for it. Listen to what a former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare—a card-carrying liberal, Joseph Califano, who served under my immediate predecessor, had to say on the subject. He said, "I came to HEW enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve education in America, and determined to step up Federal funding sharply." And then he wrote, "I left alarmed over the deterioration of public education in America and troubled by the threat to academic freedom that the Federal role, enlarged and shaped by special interests, poses."

Well, I couldn't agree more. And I know that former Secretary Califano also spoke for thousands of parents, teachers, students, and school administrators who have found themselves caught in a tangle of conflicting, time-consuming Federal regulations. The road to better education for all our people simply cannot be paved with more and more recycled tax dollars collected, redistributed, and overregulated by Washington bureaucrats.

But there is much that the Federal Government can do to help set a national agenda for excellence in education, a commitment to quality that can open up new opportunities and new horizons to our young people. I'll have a little more to say about that in the weeks ahead. But on this special day, let me just cite a few commonsense goals and guiding principles. Some of them may be familiar to you. They should be, because they've helped to make the teaching that many of you have received here at Seton Hall and in your primary and secondary schools outstanding. And they can make the teaching your younger brothers and sisters and your children receive even better.

To begin with, the time has come for a grass roots campaign for educational renewal that unites parents, teachers, and concerned citizens. We spend more money per child for education than any other country in the world. We just haven't been getting our money's worth. And we won't until we reverse some of the dangerous trends of recent years. And that means restoring parents and local government to their rightful role in the educational process.

Perhaps the biggest irony about the problems facing American education today is the fact that we already know what makes for good schools—leadership from principals and superintendents, dedication from well-trained teachers, discipline, homework, testing, and efficient use of time. [Applause] I noted where that applause started from. [Laughter] All of these things can be improved without increasing Federal funding and interference—and with only modest increases in local and State support.

One of the best ways to do this—and, unfortunately, it's opposed by some of the heaviest hitters in the national education lobby—is by rewarding excellence. Teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their merit and competence. Hard-earned tax dollars should encourage the best. They have no business rewarding incompetence and mediocrity.

And we can also encourage excellence by encouraging parental choice. And that's exactly what we're trying to do through our programs of tuition tax credits and vouchers, allowing individual parents to choose the kinds of schools they know will be best for their children's needs. America rose to greatness through the free and vigorous competition of ideas. We can make American education great again by applying these same principles of intellectual freedom and innovation—for individual families, through the vouchers I mentioned and tuition tax credits, and for individual public school systems, through block grants that come without the red tape of government regulations from Washington attached.

And although I know that this idea is not too popular in some supposedly sophisticated circles, I can't help but believe that voluntary prayer and the spiritual values that have shaped our civilization and made us the good and caring society we are deserve a place again in our nation's classrooms.

Well, I could go on and on; but don't worry, I won't. [Laughter] This is your graduation, not my state-of-the-schools address. [Laughter] So, I'll save the details for more appropriate forums in the weeks and months ahead.

Today is your day, graduates, teachers, friends, and family. And it's a day for you to remember not for anything that I've had to say, but for what it will mean to you for the rest of your lives. And I—and speaking for those people over there in that particular section—tell you, you'll be amazed a half a century down the road at how clearly and how warmly the memories of these last few years will stay with you and how much they'll mean to you.

With an economy that's growing healthier every day, with a country that's still strong in freedom and growing stronger in opportunity, your lives can be as good and productive and as meaningful as you are willing to make them.

Pope John wrote of Mother Seton that "She flourished in holiness precisely at the time when the young United States was beginning to take its important place among the peoples of the world." Well, so, too, can each of you, for we are still a young nation. And we have a place to take in the world. I know of no nation in a better position than to lead the world out of the morass of hatred and rivalry and to freedom for all mankind than the United States.

You've been given special blessings, special gifts, families that care, that have given you the values of honesty, hard work, and faith that has seen you through the formative years of your lives; teachers who've taught you to think and to learn in preparation for productive careers; and a country that, for all its faults, is still what Lincoln called it more than a century ago: "the last, best hope of Earth."

Now, I know there are certain cliches and things that go with commencements, such as a graduation speaker is supposed to tell you you know more today than you've ever known before or that you'll ever know again. I won't say that. [Laughter] But if I could do something else that probably is all too often done, would you listen for a moment to a little advice and based on personal experience?

Because this graduation year is so similar to that one of 50 and 51 years ago, in the depths of that Great Depression, I remember, diploma in hand, going back to my summer job that I'd had for 7 years, lifeguarding on a river beach out there in Illinois. And I remember all—you didn't think of career, listening to those announcements I mentioned a little while ago on the radio—all you thought about was how, how when the beach closes this fall, where do I go? What job is there?

And I was fortunate. A man who had survived the Great Depression until then, and was doing well out in the business world, gave me some advice. He said, "Look, I could tell you that maybe I could speak to someone and they might give you a job. But," he said, "they'd only do it because of me." And then he said, "They wouldn't have a particular interest in you." He said, "May I tell you that even in the depths of this depression," and so I will say to you even in the depths of this recession, there are people out there who know that the future is going to depend on taking young people into whatever their undertaking is and starting them out so that—whether it's business, industry, or whatever it might be—it will continue on.

"Now," he said, "a salesman has to knock on a lot of doors before he makes a sale. So," he said, "if you will make up your mind what line of work you want to be in, what industry, what business, whatever it is, profession or other," he said, "and then start knocking on doors, eventually you'll come to one of those men or women who feels that way. And all you have to do-don't ask for the particular job you want; tell them you'll take any job in that industry or that business, whatever it may be, because you believe in it and its future and you'll take your chances on progressing from there."

Well, my means of travel in that early era was hitchhiking, and I hitchhiked from one radio station to another. Radio was the most new industry of that time. And he was absolutely right. I came to one one day when I was just about out of shoe leather and didn't know how much further I could go. And I started on a career that led to another career, and that led to some things that are more visible today. [Laughter]

But he was right. And so I say it to you, I pass on his advice to you. Don't get discouraged with the situation of the world. Things are getting better. And believe it, we need you. We need your youth. We need your idealism. We need your strength out there in what we're trying to accomplish today. So, welcome to the world.

The world you inherit today may not always be an easy one, for nothing worth winning is easily gained. But it's a good world, and it's a world that each of you can help to make a better one. What greater gift than that—what nobler heritage could anyone be blessed with?

So, may I add my congratulations to all of you, good fortune to all of you. And above all, God bless you.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:40 a.m. on the university's athletic field. Prior to his remarks, he was presented with an honorary doctor of laws degree by Msgr. John J. Petillo, chairman of the university's board of regents.

Following his address, the President went to Camp David, Md., where he spent the remainder of the weekend.

Ronald Reagan, Address at Commencement Exercises at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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