Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Commencement Address at Texas Christian University.

May 29, 1968

Dr. Moudy, and fellow students:

Any political speaker who comes to a college campus today does so at his own risk. I want to make it very clear at the beginning--I come here tonight not as a politician but as a student.

Just like you, I am here to get my degree. I am honored to appear here with seven others who will receive honorary degrees tonight. Perhaps my degree means more to me than it does to them. I am the only one who is a college dropout--from the electoral college, that is.

Dr. Moudy, I appreciate your doctor of laws degree for another reason, too. As someone who has spent the better part of his life doctoring laws, it is nice to finally have a license.

So I appreciate it and I am delighted to be welcomed into the fraternity of educated men.

I may even apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, although I am not very hopeful of my chances. No one can come to TCU without paying homage to its great quarterbacks like Sammy Baugh and Davy O'Brien. Fort Worth is known as the home of great quarterbacks. So is the National Capital, Washington. The only difference is that your quarterbacks play on Saturday and ours do their work on Monday mornings.

We meet here tonight at a time when the American university is at the center of rapid change and the center of heated controversy.

Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on the nature of change in America--on affirmations and discontent among our young people and on your opportunity to share in the on-going discovery of our country.

It is an unchanging habit of commencement orators to talk about change. The speakers who tell their audiences this year that times are changing, however, should not be accused of dealing in platitudes. For America and the world are altering themselves at a dizzying speed. The citizen, the student and the public servant may find it difficult to fathom the nature and the meaning of all of this change.

But all of us can feel it happening. All of us are stirred by it. All of us are sometimes elated--and sometimes quite disturbed by it.

A stranger to America might well wonder how a people so active and so successful can be so troubled.

Why do we take so little comfort in the undeniable triumphs of the past few years? Why do we scarcely seem to notice how far we have come--in such a short time--toward solving the problems that have plagued our democracy for generations?

In the past 3 years, a stranger might point out, America has brought the franchise to almost a million new citizens who had been systematically denied the right to vote in the past.

In this administration alone, the Nation's economy--and our common efforts to conquer want--have lifted more than 8 million people up from poverty; created more than 7 million new jobs; cut unemployment to the lowest level in 15 years; and increased the real income of the average American, after taxes, by more than 20 percent.

In a few years, the Congress has broken the deadlock of years and pioneered new programs in health, in education, in consumer protection, in conservation, in civil rights. Your own Senator Yarborough and Congressman Wright and Congressman Teague and others have supported the leadership in this field.

Yet for all this accomplishment, the American people are anything but satisfied. We are, as countless orators and observers remind us, a restless nation.

Why? Part of the answer lies, I believe, in the very progress we have made. For a nation-as for an individual--success brings its own problems and raises its own vexing questions.

More than a century ago, a shrewd French visitor to our shores made this observation:

"The sufferings that are endured patiently, as being inevitable, become intolerable-at the moment it appears that there might be an escape. Reform, then, only serves to reveal more clearly what still remains oppressive, and now all the more unbearable. The suffering, it is true, has been reduced--but one's sensitivities have become much more acute."

Certainly our sensitivities have become more acute. We are today more keenly aware of lingering poverty amid our growing wealth---of public squalor amid private luxury. Our people, especially our younger people, are more impatient than ever with "what still remains oppressive"--with racial injustice, urban decay, outworn institutions, bitterness and war between nations.

By almost every measure, we have moved closer--yes, much closer--to solving these problems that vex us. But although some of the solutions are in sight, many of them remain frustratingly beyond our reach. With all our advances in computer technology, we are still unable to set a precise date for the arrival of equality, the advent of peace, the curing of old ills and the healing of old wounds.

As President Kennedy put it, we are destined--all of us--"to live out most, if not all, of our lives in uncertainty and challenge and peril."

Well, how should we face this uncertainty? Will we master an uncertain age, or will we let it overwhelm us?

Do we have the strength, the tolerance, the vitality--and the faith--to weather the "burden and the heat of the day"?

Much will depend on the answer your generation gives us. And sometimes your answer is not encouraging.

Today, as in every time in our history, there are those who doubt the power of our democracy to make early and significant progress.

There are extremists whose aim is to rule--or to wreck. They speak only in slogans, and sometimes they are deaf--deaf to reasoned reply. They are chiefly united in the certainty with which they advance their views--and in the vehemence with which they mock the views of others.

Theirs is not the spirit of liberty--which Judge Learned Hand once defined as "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."

Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of our Declaration of Independence, the great philosopher of individual liberty, and the defender of individual conscience, wrote a kinsman in 1808 that public men should from all student "disputants... keep aloof, as you would from the infected subjects of yellow fever or pestilence. Consider yourself, when with them, as among the .patients of Bedlam, needing medical more than moral counsel. Be a listener only, keep within yourself . . . the habit of silence, especially on politics. In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights, either in fact or principle. They are determined as to the facts they will believe, and the opinions on which they will act. Get by them, therefore, as you would by an angry bull; it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal."

I might point out that Thomas Jefferson wrote this during the last year of his Presidency.

It would be interesting to compare his views with those privately expressed by several modern presidents in recent weeks.

But my purpose, this evening, is to talk to you about change--and those who glorify violence as a form of political action are really the best friends the status quo ever had. They provoke a powerful conservative reaction among millions of people. They inspire, among many people, a blind allegiance to things as they are--even when those things ought to be changed.

But though they are great in volume, these young totalitarians of opinion are few in number among America's graduating classes this spring.

For almost 40 years--since I was graduated from a small college down in San Marcos-I have been observing the quality of each year's crop of university graduates. I must speak to you frankly, and without any attempt at flattery.

I believe that this generation of young college people is the best I have ever seen. Healthier--as you would expect--quicker of mind, and better trained.

But beyond those things--which could be, after all, only the results of affluence and evolution-there is a moral energy in this generation that exceeds any I have ever seen before.

Even that may stem in part from historical circumstances. Most of those who are graduating from college now have had a degree of leisure, in which to contemplate the society around them. Most have had a measure of confidence in their ability to secure a prosperous place in that society. And so they have been spared the pressure of meeting society's demands--of shaping themselves to be acceptable to a very restricted job market.

However it has come about, they have had an opportunity to look at their country--at its institutions, its people, its promise, and its performance.

You have had a chance to feel the force of change in modern life---even if you--like the rest of us--cannot sometimes entirely comprehend it. You have already experienced the impersonality of modern institutions-that affords you a degree of privacy, while it sometimes deprives you of a sense that you count.

You know that your chances for long and prosperous lives have never been better. Your life expectancy is far from what the graduate's was of yesteryear. But you wonder whether you will continue to live side by side with desperate want, ugliness, and with racial animosity.

You know that your country is the most powerful Nation on earth. But you wonder how its power, and its idealism, may help to bring peace to a tormented world.

These are not new concerns. What is new is the desire of the young college graduates today to ask the right questions--and the desire of your country to try to find the right answers.

Here are some of the questions that I hope you will ask--and then I hope you will take part in answering them:

--How can the quality of education be improved--not only in the ghetto classrooms, but throughout the Nation's entire educational system, from preschool to graduate school? From Head Start to adult education? How can education be improved?

--What are the best means of helping our poor to lead more secure and productive lives?

--How can good medical care be provided at reasonable cost to every citizen in our land?

--How can the transportation of people be made safer, swifter, less frustrating, and more efficient?

--How can we take advantage of technological change, and the economy of massive enterprises, without submerging the individual?

--How can we best help the people of the underdeveloped world in their struggle against poverty?

--How can we help the world--and help ourselves--find rational solutions to conflict, and end the threat of a nuclear war?

These are formidable questions. You may feel somewhat ill-equipped to deal with them. I assure you that I do.

But they must be answered, if conditions in our country and the world are to change in a manner that will serve man, and not master him. And it is your generation that must answer them.

You must begin now--in industry, in government, in universities, in politics, in private life--to examine the alternatives, to seek the programs, the politicians, and the public support for progressive change.

I believe that leaders in your government can contribute to the education of this college generation. I should like to see outstanding leaders from the junior classes in the colleges all over America come to Washington each year, for direct discussions with their government leaders on these key issues of our times that we must find the answers to. I would like to see them spend, without losing credit, a month to 6 weeks in the National Capital each spring--deepening their understanding of the prospects and the problems that we face.

I have, as President, called upon the White House Fellows--young citizens who have served a year at the highest levels of our Government--to develop a plan for accomplishing this, and to submit their plan to me early in the fall.

It is a time to widen the opportunities for excellence. It is a time to widen the opportunities for service in public affairs. I have tried to do this in a number of ways:

--through VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, where young men and women help those who need it most;

--through the White House Fellows program;

--through the recognition of Presidential Scholars from every State in the Union;

--and, not least, through going out to college campuses and finding and using the best young talent that is available for service in our Government.

Now, I believe we should extend the range of young people's participation in public life. I believe we should move forward--now-to grant the vote to 18-year-olds.

Several States have already done so. A majority of the people and many in Congress approve the idea. The great majority of young people in America have demonstrated their maturity; their desire to participate; their zeal for service.

But we can do more than open the door to participation for a chosen few. I think there is a basic and fundamental need to open our political system to the participation of the many.

I strongly believe, therefore, that the time is already here for this Nation to recognize and to grant the right to vote to 18-year-olds. We have everything to gain by extending to these young people the most precious right and responsibility of citizenship--the right to vote.

So I leave you, this evening, a faith:

--faith in you,

--faith in our institutions,

--faith in our country,

--faith in your capacity to change our country for the better.

My faith is built on what young people have achieved, in these past few years, on their bravery and steadfastness in battle, on their idealism and perseverance in the cause of social justice.

It is built, as well, on the country itself: on its ability to move out of apathy and bigotry, and move toward dignity for all of its people; on its steady assumption of responsibility in the world.

I know the future will be often perilous and frustrating. The past, you know, has been that way, too. But what we have accomplished in these years--and what you are tonight--tells me that we have only begun to achieve the greatness that is our destiny. Good night, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 8:08 p.m. in the coliseum at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. His opening words referred to Dr. James M. Moudy, Chancellor of the University. During his remarks he referred to Senator Ralph Yarborough and Representatives James C. Wright, Jr. and Olin E. Teague, all of Texas.

The plan requested by the President for visits to Washington and discussions with Government leaders by college undergraduates is contained in a report presented to him by the White House Fellows Association on October 29, 1968. An announcement of the presentation ceremony is printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 4, p. 1553). For remarks by the President concerning the report, see Item 570.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Commencement Address at Texas Christian University. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under





Simple Search of Our Archives