Reagan’s Speech at the Eureka College Library Dedication

Eureka College, September 28, 1967


It must be evident to most of you that only a thin wall of wavering willpower stands between you and an engulfing flood of nostalgia.

Ten years ago, in cap and gown, I stood in this place to receive an honorary degreeā€”a happening which only compounded an already heavy burden of guilt. I had always figured the first degree you gave me was honorary.

That first degree was thirty-five years and a few months ago.

Now, as far as you students are concerned, that makes it definite I am not of your generation. There are those with differing political views who would go even further and place me as far back as the Ice Age some even further to the time of McKinley.

Some here today, however, can bear witness that thirty- five years are like thirty-five minutes, so clear and fresh is memory. No matter how much you students may want to believe this, your imaginations are not quite up to it. you will just have to wait and find out for yourselves. But you will find out.

There is a tendency in today’s world to put more than years between us. Somehow, as humans, we have been stratified into a horizontal society instead of vertical. Layers of humanity are separated into age groups from preschool to those the social thinkers refer to as senior citizens. And somehow we are losing our ability to establish communications between layers. What is even worse, there is a growing hostility between these layers.

It is an unnatural situation. Humanity is vertically structured. The teenager will become the young married or junior executive, and, in turn, the middle-aged and eventually the senior citizen. Each one of us will take his faults and virtues, his pluses and minuses, through the years, being at all times the sum total of all he has experienced.

This separation into horizontal layers makes no sense at all. What of this talk that no one over thirty understands the youth of today? If this is true, then what happens when you reach thirty? Do you suddenly join us and quit understanding those who have not quite reached the magic age?

Each generation is critical of its predecessor. As the day nears when classroom and playing field must give way to the larger arena with its problems of inequality and human misunderstanding, it is easy to look at those in that arena and demand to know why the problems remain unsolved. We who preceded you asked that question of those who preceded us and another younger generation will ask it of you.

I hope there will be less justification for the question when it is your turn to answer. What I am trying to say is that no generation has failed completely, nor will yours succeed completely.

But don’t get me wrong. When the generation of which I am a part leaves the stage, history will record that seldom has any generation fought harder or paid a higher price for freedom.

We have known three wars and now a fourth, a cataclysmic worldwide depression that toppled governments and reshaped the map. And, because we could not find the single cure-all for man’s inhumanity to man or the answer to human frailty, we have downgraded our performance and confused you as well as ourselves.

It is easy to point to the failures and talk of the mess of our times, and even to promise we will do better. But for the record, since we are the generation that exploded the atomic bomb and brought a permanent terror to the world, we also harnessed the atom for peaceful purposes. And some of those peaceful purposes, in medicine and industrial power, have brought man to the threshold of a fabulous era.

We have defeated polio and tuberculosis and a host of plague diseases that held even more terror for mankind than the threat of the bomb. It is a certainty that your generation and ours will overlap in defeating cancer.

Point an accusing finger and list smog, water pollution, poverty, civil rights, inequality of opportunity. We still seek the answers, and, while many of us disagree as to the solutions, we were the ones who faced up to the problems and charged ourselves with finding the answers. No one in public life fails to treat these problems.

This horizontal stratification has led to lateral communication, and it is highly essential that we restore vertical dialogue, if not an outright recognition of the naturalness and rightness of a vertical structuring of society.

How well do young people understand those whose defect is age thirty-plus? Can you possibly believe your fathers who knew the savagery of World War II or your grandfathers who came of age in the muddy trenches of the Great War could possibly have an affection for war? That we would callously send our sons to war?

Permit me here to build at least a footbridge between the age groups of parent and child, remembering that bridges are open to traffic both ways.

That fellow with the thickening waist and the thinning hair who is sometimes unreasonable about your allowance or letting you have the car… his life seems a little dull to you now as he reports for his daily 9 to it chores, or looks forward to lowering a golf handicap, or catching a fish no one wants to eat.

I wish you could have known him a few years back on a landing craft at Normandy or Tarawa or on a weekend pass in Peoria. He was quite a guy. Winston Churchill said he was the only man in the world who could laugh and fight at the same time. General [George] Marshall called him our secret weapon. He hated war more than he hated the enemy, but he did what had to be done.

A few years after the end of World War II, I was in a little pub in rural England. The motherly soul who was waiting on trade figured out I was an American (for the life of me, I don’t know how). She began to reminisce. “During the war,” she said, “some of your chaps were stationed just across the road. They used to come in here and have song-fests. They called me Mom and my husband Pop. It was Christmas Eve and we were here all alone when the door burst open and there they were with presents for us.” she paused for a tear or two and then said: “Big strappin’ lads they was from a place called ‘Iowa’.”

I know those over-thirty fellows probably don’t tell it very well so that you can see them as they were then, but they all knew what it was like to dream, to say good-bye to a girl and wonder when, if ever, they would see her again. They missed a world that let things like that happen, and swore they would do better when they got back and were running the show.

They came back from war and created an organization to outlaw war, and we have not known a single minute’s peace since. The dream was a good dream, no effort was spared and we continue to pour out our treasure to make the dream come true. Proving again our vertical structures this problem will be yours as well as ours to solve.

It wasn’t that we faltered or lacked in willingness. There are organizational difficulties that could not have been foreseen. New and emerging nations with neither power nor responsibility for controlling world forces have a disproportionate voice in world councils. A two-thirds majority can be mustered among a half hundred nations who represent less than 10 percent of the world’s population.

Are the problems of urban ghettoes and poverty the result of selfishness on our part or indifference to suffering? No people in all the history of mankind have shared so widely its material resources.

We taxed ourselves more heavily and extended aid at home and abroad. And when the problems grew, we planned more and passed more legislation to add to the scores of programs, until today, they are listed in government catalogues of hundreds of pages. We who are called materialist have tried to solve human problems with material means. We have forgotten man’s spiritual heritage; we have placed security above freedom and confused the citizen’s responsibility to society with society’s responsibility to the individual.

We have to re-study some of our social legislation, legislation that meant well, but has failed in its goals or has created greater problems than the ones it was meant to cure.

We have to re-examine our individual goals and aims.

What do we want for ourselves and our children? Is it enough to have material things? Aren’t liberty and morality and integrity and high principles and a sense of responsibility more important?

The world’s truly great thinkers have not pointed us toward materialism; they have dealt with the great truths and with the high questions of right and wrong, of morality and of integrity.

They have dealt with the question of man, not the acquisition of things. And when civilizations have disregarded their findings, when they have turned to the things of the flesh, they have disappeared.

You are concerned with us and what seems to be hypocrisy and lack of purpose on our part. And we in turn are concerned about you, seeing a rising spirit of unrest, aimlessness, and drifting, a feeling of rebellion without a real cause that results sometimes in meaningless but violent actions. Now, let me make it plain. I am aware that all of you are unfairly suspect because of a very small percentage of dissidents.

Nevertheless, you do seek a purpose and a meaning to life, and apparently we have failed to give it to you. But, again, our failure was not one of bad intent.

We are the classic example of giving to you what we never had from TV to wheels and dental care to Little League. But I am afraid we shortchanged you on responsibilities or the right to earn for yourselves.

All too often, because we had to earn, we wanted to give. our motives have been laudable, but our judgment has been bad. “No” was either a dirty word or dropped from our vocabulary.

Some time ago in Newport, California, a row of luxurious oceanfront homes were threatened by an abnormally high tide and heavy surf. All through the day and night, volunteers worked, piling sandbags, in an effort to save these homes. Local TV stations, aware of the drama, covered the struggle. It was about 2 A.M. when one newscaster grabbed a young fellow in his teens, attired only in wet trunks. He had been working all day and night one of several hundred of his age group. No, he did not live in one of the homes they were trying to save, and, yes, he was cold and tired. The newscaster inevitably got around to why. The answer was so poignant, such an indictment of so many of us, it should be on a billboard across the nation. He said: “Well, I guess it’s the first time we’ve ever felt like we were needed.”

You are needed; we need your courage, your idealism, your new and untried viewpoint. You know more than we did at your age; you are brighter, better informed, even healthier. And because human kind is vertically structured, we can take a little credit for that. But, you want a purpose, a cause, a banner to follow, and we owe you that.

A few years ago, a national magazine did a series of articles by prominent people including a president, a vice- president, and distinguished statesmen. Each wrote his idea of what was our national purpose. Somehow, nothing very exciting or profound resulted from these articles. I have always felt it was because they tried to invent something we already have and have had for two hundred years. Our national purpose is to unleash the full talent and genius of the individual, not to create mass movements with the citizenry subjecting themselves to the whims of the state. Here, as nowhere in the world, we are established to provide the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order.

Today, we dedicate this library because Wesley and Clinton Melick have thought not in horizontal lines of just their associates in time. you want a purpose, something to believe in? You might try resolving that you will contribute something to generations unborn a handhold above your own achievement so that another generation can climb higher and achieve more.

This library is more than a beautiful and functional building. It is first and foremost a repository of knowledge and culture. More facts will be available in this one library than were available in all the libraries of the world a hundred years ago.

That shouldn’t surprise you.

Man’s knowledge has increased at such a rapid rate since the turn of the century that any book of facts written then would be obsolete now, both in terms of what we know to be true and also what we know to be true no longer.

But a library is more than just a place to go for facts. A library is also a place to go for wisdom. And the purpose of an educational institution is to teach not only knowledge, but also wisdom.

Someone once said that people who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on buses and subways.

In a way, that may be true.

But to understand democracy is not necessarily to solve its problems.

And I would venture to say Aristotle, and those others whom you will find not in the buses and subways, but instead in this building here, will give you more answers and more clues to the solutions of our problems than you are likely to find on the buses and subways.

Maybe the best answer is to be found in both, but do not let the library go to waste because you are awaiting the completion of Eureka’s first subway.

Now, when I suggest that we turn to books, to the accumulated knowledge of the past, I am not suggesting that we turn back the clock or retreat into some dim yesterday that we remember only with nostalgia, if at all. But we must learn from yesterday to have a better tomorrow.

We are beset by problems in a complex world; we are confused by those who tell us only new and untried ways offer hope. The answers to all the problems of mankind will be found in this building by those who have the desire to find them and perception enough to recognize them.

There will be the knowledge of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, and from the vantage point of history, their mistakes. We can look back and see where pure democracy became as dictatorial as a sultan and majority rule without protection for the minority became mob rule.

One of mankind’s problems is that we keep repeating the same errors. For every generation some place, two plus two has added up to three, or in another place, five four seems to elude some of us. This has happened in my generation and I predict, without smugness, it will happen to yours.

But, these two men here today have given something almost beyond comprehension.

Do you doubt the answers can be found here? From the eleventh century, Maimonides, Hebrew philosopher and physician, will give you the eight steps in helping the needy to help themselves.

Can you name one problem that would not be solved if we had simply followed the teachings of the man from Galilee? We can redirect our nation’s course into the paths of freedom and morality and high principle.

And, in so directing it, we can build better lives for ourselves and our children and a better nation for those who come after us, or we can ignore history and go the way of Greece and Rome.

I think that this is the significance of this library. The fact that we can use it to rechart our course, not into the great unknown, but onto paths that are clear and which, if followed, can show us how to cope with the new problems that always confront each generation and can lead us, as a people, on to continued greatness.

There were many who had a hand in this, but they would be the first to say it happened because of you, Woes and Clint Melick. On behalf of all of us who knew Eureka and those still to come, we thank you. Eureka means “We have found a way of life.” you have made the search much easier.

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