In my last two posts here I have tried to discuss the gap between the rhetoric of compassion and true compassion, as that gap relates to both American Conservatism and the goal of re-establishing our communities as we re-limit the size and scope of the federal government.
To punctuate what I have tried to say, I want to provide a pre-emptive answer to that inevitable response that will go something like this: “well, Reagan wouldn’t agree with that;” or, “that’s not what Reagan said.” To those inevitable critics, just saying “you’re wrong” would not satisfy you, so I want to give you Reagan in his own words—words that underlie the creation of the “Renewing the American Community” forum.
Although most conservatives can pick a favorite speech of Reagan’s from that moment in 1964 when he appeared on television for the Goldwater campaign and delivered his “A Time for Choosing” speech, to his Farewell Address in 1989, I believe the speech that most completely presents Reagan’s thoughts may be the speech he gave in September, 1967, at Eureka College in Illinois to dedicate a new library. Let’s remember the context: a second straight summer of unrest had just ended and college students had just returned to campus for a new school year—the riots of 1968 were less than a year away; the Vietnam War, the anti-war and anti-draft protests, and the Civil Rights marches were all in full bloom on the nightly news programs; the Presidential election cycle for 1968 was beginning; and Reagan had just been elected Governor of California less than a year before. In this context, Reagan spoke directly to the students of Eureka College, his alma mater, and presented the seeds of the ideas that would provide the foundation of his vision of the Shining City on a Hill, draw the first lines on the blueprints for his New Republican Party, and animate his leadership over the next generation. Here are extended excerpts from that speech:
…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. …
…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. …
…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. …
…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. …
…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. …
…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 re-chart 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. …