Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Address at the Centennial Commencement of Swarthmore College.

June 08, 1964

Mr. President, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I feel a special sense of purpose in coming to this distinguished Quaker college for its centennial celebration. Today, more than ever, we value the tradition of the Society of Friends. We recognize that in the outer simplicity of Quaker life and the inner passion for decency and justice, there is inspiration for every person of good will.

Before President Truman launched the point 4 program and President Kennedy the Peace Corps, the Quakers were working in remote corners of the world to bring hope and to teach self-help to both villagers and peasants.

Before we took a national resolve to declare unremitting war on poverty at home, the Quakers were working in urban slums and blighted rural backwaters to help their fellow Americans break the chains of poverty.

Before most Americans saw in higher learning a broad avenue toward social progress and individual fulfillment, the Quakers were founding this college and many others throughout our wonderful land.

Swarthmore's high standing today vindicates the vision of those who founded your college a hundred years ago.

Fifty-one years ago President Woodrow Wilson told another generation at Swarthmore, "I cannot admit that a man establishes his right to call himself a college graduate by showing me his diploma. The only way that he can prove it is by showing that his eyes are lifted to some horizon which other men less instructed than he have not been privileged to see."

I have been working in recent weeks to describe the horizon to which our eyes should be lifted. I have tried to suggest the heights to which we can rise if your generation uses the power we now possess to fulfill the promise of America.

We hear it said from time to time that the day of the individual is passing. We are told that this is the age of the oversized organization--of big business, of big unions, of big government.

We hear that the individual is being smothered by giant concentrations of power, he is being submerged by senseless urban sprawl, and enfeebled by the material gadgets of success.

We are told that the individual can count for little in the era of "The Organization Man." We are told that many college students today feel alien to this world they are preparing to enter.

I would remind you that earlier generations also prophesied that the individual had reached his final frontier. Our ancestors complained bitterly when the West was won, leaving no new avenues of adventure or escape.

At the turn of the century, prophets were predicting that men would be devoured by the monster corporation. During the dreary depression years some concluded that the future, if there was a future, belonged entirely to the totalitarian society.

I cite the past this morning merely to indicate that history has a habit of upsetting dire calculations. I believe that the pessimistic prophesies about our future are mistaken. We can share a destiny in which in the midst of massive organization the individual finds rich rewards.

More than anytime in the past, you can find personal fulfillment while contributing to the betterment of all mankind.

This testament of faith is not based on an idle dream. As machines increasingly bring release from manual toil, I foresee little leisure for those who work with their minds.

We have big problems ahead--and challenging times demand creative thinking. The growth of our population, the contamination of our environment, the crowding of our schools, the congestion of our cities-each by itself could constitute the challenge for the next decade.

The world, at home and abroad, offers no promise of quiet years ahead. We can expect a constant testing of our Nation's leadership and our Nation's purpose. Unless we stimulate individual enterprise, unless we reward individual accomplishment, we will be the servants and not the masters of change.

In education we must provide higher learning for all who qualify. But we must also encourage the excellence which inspires a talented student to enlarge the limits of his capacity.

In science, achievement requires many technicians working in concert. But we must never forget the tradition of the solitary genius--the Newton, the Einstein, the Fermi--who tests the free range of his own curiosity.

In art, we welcome the growth of mass markets for books, painting, and sculpture. But we must also seek to nourish the artistic talent which has not yet achieved a buying public. In the humanities we must ensure that centers of liberal learning are not neglected as new knowledge nourishes the practical studies.

In all areas of public and private enterprise we must understand that important ideas cannot be fashioned on an assembly line. The wit who told us that a camel was a horse designed by a committee serves a medal to his memory.

We can--and we must--set these priorities for individual accomplishment. We can--and we must--avoid mediocrity as the standard of success. These are wise and proper cautions to protect and promote individual expression in America.

At the same time let us not call forth phantom fears about what the future holds. One of those fears is that the Federal Government has become a major menace to individual liberty. This is not so.

Does government subvert our freedom through the social security system which guards our people against destitution when they are too old to work ?

Does government undermine our freedom by bringing electricity to the farm, by controlling floods, or by ending bank failures?

Is freedom lessened by efforts to abate pollution in our streams, by efforts to gain knowledge of the causes of heart disease and cancer, or by efforts to strengthen competition and the free market?

Is freedom really diminished by banning the sale of harmful drugs, by providing school lunches for our children, by preserving our wilderness areas, or by improving the safety of our airways?

Is freedom betrayed when in 1964 we redeem in full the pledge made a century ago by the Emancipation Proclamation?

The truth is--far from crushing the individual, government at its best liberates him from the enslaving forces of his environment. For as Thomas Jefferson said, "the care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

Upon the rock of that conviction this Government is fighting--fighting to free 20 million Americans whose rights have been denied and whose hopes have been damned because they were born with dark skin. And upon that unchanging truth we are determined to wage unconditional war against the poverty that keeps one-fifth of our people in economic bondage.

These are the goals of a compassionate government which keeps faith with the trust of its fathers and cherishes the future of its children. Through compassion for the plight of one individual, government fulfills its purpose as the servant of all the people.

Let me state clearly what I mean by "this government."

I do not mean just the politicians, technicians, and the experts in Washington. I do not mean only the agencies that make up the Federal system, or the departments and bureaus of your State government or your local municipality.

I include you. I include every citizen. For as Aristotle said, "If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy . . . they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost."

We have in this country of ours a government which derives its power from the consent of the governed--from the people.

From those same people must come the dreams, the faith, the hopes, and the works which fashion the great purposes of government.

From the people must come the private compassion and the personal commitment by which struggles for justice and wars against poverty are won.

Because our government is the sum total of the people it serves, the choices that you personally make, the courses that you personally follow, the contests that you personally join--these will finally decide the real character of this country.

So as you leave this campus today, I want to remind you of another admonition President Wilson gave to the Swarthmore class of an earlier generation: "Do not forget, then, as you walk these classic places, why you are here. You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:15 a.m. in the amphitheater on the college campus at Swarthmore, Pa., after receiving an honorary degree of doctor of laws. His opening words "Mr. President" referred to Courtney Smith, president of the college.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Address at the Centennial Commencement of Swarthmore College. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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