Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to Students and Faculty at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana

April 09, 1987

Governor Orr, Congressman Burton, Lieutenant Governor Mutz, president Beering, and ladies and gentlemen, and especially you, the students of this fine university, it's an honor for me to be able to join you here today at Purdue. And by the way, I understand that the last time there were this many people in Mackey Arena, Purdue beat IU. And as for football, the old oaken bucket has a hay that looks new enough to have been added this past fall. Am I right about that? [Applause]

But Purdue is a university justly famous throughout the world. I was especially struck to hear the statistics regarding your engineering and technological training. I am told that Purdue has educated more engineers than any other university in the country, and today 1 out of 17 engineers in America is a Purdue alumnus. Then there's the fact that some 16 Purdue engineering graduates have been selected as NASA astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, two men who walked on the Moon. You know, come to think of it, if Purdue can prepare people to go to the Moon, would it be all right if I sent a few of the big spenders in Washington out here? [Applause]

But today I've seen a great deal of Purdue, joining students in your 2-year and 4-year degree programs as they worked in a high-technology laboratory. And I can tell you, for someone who grew up in the era of slide rules, seeing all those computers and robots was one of the most amazing sights of my life. But all this high-technology equipment was being used to train students for jobs of the future. And it's just this, the need to prepare America for the challenges of the 21st century, that I have in mind in speaking to you this afternoon.

Now, it's only fitting during this National Science and Technology Week that we should begin by considering the dramatic changes that technology is already producing in the American economy. Just think, for example, that in the little town of Essex Junction, Vermont, engineers in a leading computer firm are pioneering the production of an exceptionally fast, four-megabit computer chip—a dramatic technological advance. Or consider that within recent months historic new breakthroughs have taken place in the conducting of electricity, breakthroughs that could rival the invention of the transistor. The discovery of new superconductors, materials that conduct electricity at much higher temperatures than previously believed possible, could lead to virtual revolutions in fields ranging from communications to microelectronics.

Yes, the American economy is changing dramatically, but one question remains constant, especially among students like yourselves: the question of jobs. So, I thought I'd talk first today about how best to prepare for the jobs of the future, then move on to a point perhaps even more important: how best to promote the economic growth that leads to job creation. In preparing Americans for the jobs of the future, perhaps the first matter that comes to mind is education. There can be no doubt that, as we prepare for the 21st century, American education itself must prepare. Last month in Missouri I devoted an entire address to this issue; today let me simply restate my firm belief that to improve our nation's competitiveness in the world economy, we must strive for new standards of excellence at all levels of American education.

In primary and secondary education, your fine Governor, Bob Orr, is leading the way with his A-plus program, a program that would lengthen the school year by 10 days and increase teachers' compensation and accountability alike. And in higher education, here at Purdue you're setting an example for institutions of higher learning throughout the Nation. I've already mentioned the labs and classrooms I visited today; remarkable as they were, it's perhaps even more impressive that a large part of Purdue's technical education effort takes place off-campus at 13 sites around the State, including manufacturing plants. At an auto assembly plant in Kokomo, for example, some 170 workers are in a Purdue program to bring themselves up to date on automobile technology of decades to come. There are Purdue plant training programs at other large automotive firms as well, and soon Purdue courses will be offered to two Japanese companies that will be building a plant here in Lafayette. You at Purdue have reason to be proud, and I salute you, and I will.

You know, in job training, government, too, can play its part. It was with the jobs of the future in mind that our administration enacted the Jobs Training Partnership Act, or, as we use the initials in Washington, JTPA; the principal congressional author of which was your outstanding Senator, Dan Quayle. That program replaced an outmoded and expensive program with one that combines the efforts of Federal and local governments with those of business to make sure that workers receive practical, useful training and that public money goes to the training itself and not to overhead, to a bloated Federal bureaucracy. Today our administration has before Congress a proposal for a new billion-dollar worker adjustment program that would serve an additional 700,000 dislocated workers each year. And again, this program would spend public money well, providing workers with training early, before they exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Permit me to turn now to the deeper question, the underlying question: How can we best foster the economic growth that leads to the creation of jobs in the first place? Perhaps it would be best to begin by considering high technology and certain fears that high technology sometimes seems to instill. The computers I saw in your classrooms, the robots, and other high-tech devices—some fear that these innovations will destroy more jobs than they create, that technology is in some way the enemy of job formation; and yet we need only look at our nation's actual experience to see that this is not so. When I was your age, high technology meant that Lindbergh made it across the Atlantic in one piece— [laughter] —and some 44 million Americans were employed. Yet between 1930 and 1980, a time when our nation made steady and remarkable technological progress, the American economy employed on average some 11 million more workers every decade. And to take still more recent evidence, during the economic expansion of the past 52 months, a time of technological breakthrough after breakthrough, our nation actually created over 13 million more jobs.

Could I just say something—I don't recall the figures as of now—but just interject something here? Back when the modern telephone with dialing and so forth came into being, and you didn't—and most of you never perhaps knew that there was a time when you picked up the phone and an operator said, "Number, please," and you told her what the number was that you wanted and so forth. And when the new dialing and everything came in, there was a great fear that jobs were going to disappear. Well, at the rate of the use of telephones today, if we were still with the old system, there aren't enough women in the United States to man those operator jobs as they did at that time.

Well, it's true that over the years adjustments have had to be made as older industries sometimes gave way to newer. But these adjustments were made, and today our nation employs some 113 million. No, technology is not the enemy of job creation but its parent, the very source of our economic dynamism and creativity. And this being the case, we must ask ourselves what conditions and policies best foster economic creativity and technological advance and, yes, the creation of jobs. In answering this, permit me first a brief overview of two decades: first, the seventies, and then our own decade of the eighties.

You'll perhaps remember that during the seventies economic policy was dominated by the Keynesian notion that the behavior of individuals operating in the marketplace had to be influenced by the Government on occasion—in short, that government could manage the economy by raising or lowering the level of demand. In particular, it was thought that government could stimulate economic growth by inducing greater consumption and demand and enjoying Federal deficit spending. Well, all of this may sound technical, and of course there's no reason to expect that everyone here lives and breathes economic policy the way so many back in Washington do—maybe that's one of the problems with Washington-yet the central point is simple: Economic policy lost sight of the individual and focused instead on government. And this meant that government regulation of the economy increased. Government spending soared. In the late seventies the tax burden—that fundamental indicator of the relationship between the Government and the governed—the tax burden on both corporations and individuals went up.

If the Keynesian view had been correct-f government really could, in effect, fabricate prosperity—then, as the decade of the seventies wore on, we all would have noticed our standard of living going up. And instead, of course, just the opposite took place. The Nation that after World War II had the strongest economy in the world saw its economy falter. By 1980 inflation was raging, interest rates had reached the highest levels since the Civil War, and the standard of living was actually in decline. Government had had its chance. There's only one word for what it produced: failure. And then, beginning in 1981, our administration worked to restore the individual to his rightful place at the center of economic policy. Just as the old view meant the expansion of government, so our view meant reducing government, or at least slowing its growth. We cut tax rates. We scaled back Federal regulations—30,000 pages of them. We slowed the growth of government spending. And last year we enacted a sweeping tax reform, reducing rates on corporations and cutting the top tax rate for individuals to the lowest level in half a century.

The results? Well, the results have been profound. Last year inflation—just 6 years ago the public's number one concern—inflation reached the lowest point in 20 years. Real income is up. In the last 4 1/2 years, the stock market has nearly tripled. And as I mentioned earlier, during this expansion the American economy has created more than 13 million jobs, far more than the number created in the past decade by Europe and Japan combined. Now, of course, this economic expansion has plenty of economists puzzled. I can tell stories about economists, because my degree was in economics. You know economists; economists are the sort of people who see something work in practice and wonder if it would work in theory. [Laughter]

Forgive me, but there's another one I can't resist telling. It seems an economist, a chemist, and an engineer were stranded on a desert island. [Laughter] And between them they had only a single can of beans, but no can opener. The engineer suggested that he climb a palm tree to a precise height, then throw the beans at a precise distance, at a precise angle. "And when the can hits," he said, "it will split open." "No," said the chemist. "We'll leave the can in the sun until the heat causes the beans to expand so much the can will explode." "Nonsense," said the economist. "Using either method we'd lose too many beans. According to my plan, there will be no mess or fuss and not a single bean will be lost." Well, the engineer and the chemist said, "Well, we're certainly willing to consider it. What's your plan?" And the economist answered, "Well, first assume we have a can opener." [Laughter]

But getting back to the economy- [laughter] —in the view of one academic who does understand present-day realities, the noted management expert Peter Drucker, today's economic expansion represents nothing less than "an incredible achievement." So, what the economic policy of the past 6 years has achieved can be stated in one single, sweet word: success. Today the distinction between what we have and what we know, between merely material resources and the ultimate resource, knowledge, is becoming increasingly important.

The economy is experiencing rapid growth in knowledge-based fields like computer sciences and biotechnology. Our administration has put before Congress a number of proposals to assist in this technological revolution, proposals that, again, take into account the paramount importance of the individual and the private sector. Part of our focus will be on Federal laboratories, including defense laboratories. These are among the largest and most productive centers of scientific research in the world, but in the past there have been roadblocks set up between what was going on inside and the commercial world outside. That will change. Among other innovations, we will encourage scientists working in Federal laboratories to patent, license, and commercialize their research. Isn't it time technological breakthroughs achieved inside government were made available to the private sector, where they can still do more good? [Applause]

Our administration is proposing to establish a number of science and technology centers around the Nation, and these will focus on those areas of science that directly contribute to America's economic competitiveness. And they'll help to ensure that when it comes to technological leadership, America in the next century will continue in its role as a world leader. And to give our children basic knowledge of science and technology, our administration is beginning a campaign for scientific literacy. It will include, among many items, internships in Federal labs for promising students and aid to schools on all levels to buy scientific equipment and computers. Isn't it time that we made sure that America's young minds are ready for the 21st century? [Applause] Technology and the 21st century—as we consider the prospect, we face yet another deep question: What do we want to accomplish with our new technological abilities? Certainly we want to go on creating jobs, and of course we want to continue the partnership between government and the private sector, like the partnership in our Jobs Training Partnership Act. But what else? What might we accomplish if we truly let our minds and hearts soar?

Our administration has attempted to provide one important answer. In the realm of defense, with our Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, we're— [applause] —well, I sensed a little disagreement there, but let me cover that. We're attempting to replace the situation of mutual assured destruction, called the MAD policy, with a defense that truly defends. Wouldn't it be worth every effort if we could use our technology to free the world from the dread threat of nuclear weapons? [Applause] Just so there is no doubt, that mutual assured destruction policy, that is one in which both sides have agreed that the deterrent to a war is the threat that if either one pushes the button someday the other one will push the button and both sides will get destroyed.

Well, there are other answers, other ways to use our technology to build a better life for ourselves and all mankind. But those answers will have to come from generations other than my own. As you work out your own destiny, those answers will have to come from you. And now in closing, well, I've been thinking back to my own college days ever since I got here, and I wonder whether you'd permit me a moment's journey down memory lane? If you can stretch your imaginations back this far, my own college days happen to fall during the Great Depression. I had to work my way through college. As a matter of fact, I had one of the best jobs I've ever had while I was doing that: washing dishes in the girls dormitory. But seriously, those were days when announcements telling people not to leave home looking for work, because there was none, were made on the radio. Well, when I got my diploma, unemployment was around 25 percent.

Yet here we are just half a century later, and we Americans are enjoying a standard of living undreamed of when I was your age. As for jobs—well, as I said a moment ago, employment during these past 50 years has increased by some 65 million. The potential employment pool is defined—and perhaps you don't know this—is defined as everyone 16 years and up, male and female. That is the potential employment pool. And this year, the highest percentage of that potential pool in history has jobs. Across the Nation, Americans are living longer, healthier lives. I've already lived some two decades longer than my life expectancy when I was born. That's a source of annoyance to a number of people. [Laughter] And look at the technological marvels that we take for granted that didn't even exist back then: computers, space flights, high technology classrooms and laboratories like the ones I saw today.

But I guess what I'm trying to say is this: If our nation has made all these tremendous advances during my lifetime, from the flight of Charles Lindbergh to the flights of Neff Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, then the only limits for your own generation will be the limits of your own imaginations. So, have faith. Place your trust in the enduring values, in the beliefs that have sustained Americans through two centuries and raised our nation to greatness: God, the family, and freedom. And know that in your own minds and hearts, in your own capacity for wonder and imagination, therein lies the true economy. In this land of freedom, my friends, you only have to dream great dreams, then do your best to make them come true.

I would just like to add something right here about this great land of ours. You may call it mystical if you please. But I have always believed there was some divine plan that put this continent here between the two great oceans to be found by people from every corner of the world who had an extra ounce of courage and a love of freedom such that they would uproot themselves from family, friends, and their own country and come here to start a new life. And all that has been achieved here, all that we've done, could be summed up in something that a man wrote the other day. He said: "You can go to Spain to live, but you can't become a Spaniard. You can go to Japan and live; you can't become a Japanese, a Greek, a Frenchman, whatever it is. But anyone from any corner of the world can come here and become an American." Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 3:50 p.m. in Mackey Arena. In his opening remarks, he referred to Gov. Robert D. Orr; Representative Dan Burton; Lt. Gov. John M. Mutz; and Steven C. Beering, president of the university. He also referred to an oak bucket used as a football trophy in the rivalry between Indiana University and Purdue University.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Students and Faculty at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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