May 22, 1964
President Hatcher, Governor
Romney, Senators McNamara and Hart, Congressmen Header
and Staebler, and other members of the fine Michigan
delegation, members of the graduating class, my fellow
Americans:- It is a great pleasure to be here today.
This university has been coeducational since 1870, but
I do not believe it was on the basis of your accomplishments
that a Detroit high school girl said, "In
choosing a college, you first have to decide whether you
want a coeducational school or an educational school."
Well, we can find both here at Michigan, although perhaps
at different hours. I came out here today very anxious
to meet the Michigan student whose father told a friend
of mine that his son's education had been a real value.
It stopped his mother from bragging about him.
I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to
the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future
of your country.
The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving
the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness
of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test
of our success as a Nation.
For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent.
For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and
untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all
of our people.
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have
the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our
national life, and to advance the quality of our American
Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation
will determine whether we build a society where progress
is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values
and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For
in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward
the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to
the Great Society.
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.
It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which
we are totally committed in our time. But that is just
The Great Society is a place where every child can find
knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.
It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build
and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.
It is a place where the city of man serves not only the
needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire
for beauty and the hunger for community.
It is a place where man can renew contact with nature.
It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and
for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is
a place where men are more concerned with the quality of
their goals than the quantity of their goods.
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor,
a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It
is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward
a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous
products of our labor.
So I want to talk to you today about three places where
we begin to build the Great Society - in our cities, in
our countryside, and in our classrooms.
Many of you will live to see the day, perhaps 50 years
from now, when there will be 400 million Americans - four-fifths
of them in urban areas. In the remainder of this century
urban population will double, city land will double, and
we will have to build homes, high-ways, and facilities
equal to all those built since this country was first settled.
So in the next 40 years we must rebuild the entire urban
Aristotle said: "Men come together in cities in order
to live, but they remain together in order to live the
good life." It is harder and harder to live the good
life in American cities today. The catalog of ills is long:
there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of
the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people
or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing
and old landmarks are violated.
Worst of all, expansion is eroding the precious and time
honored values of community with neighbors and communion
with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness
and boredom and indifference.
Our society will never be great until our cities are great.
Today the frontier of imagination and innovation is inside
those cities and not beyond their borders. New experiments
are already going on. It will be the task of your generation
to make the American city a place where future generations
will come, not only to live but to live the good life.
I understand that if I stayed here tonight I would see
that Michigan students are really doing their best to live
the good life.
This is the place where the Peace Corps was started. It
is inspiring to see how all of you, while you are in this
country, are trying so hard to live at the level of the
A second place where we begin to build the Great Society
is in our countryside. We have always prided ourselves
on being not only America the strong and America the free,
but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger.
The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that
we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are
overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and
dense forests are disappearing.
A few years ago we were
greatly concerned about the "Ugly
American." Today we must act to prevent an ugly America.
For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor
is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man
can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his
spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.
A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms
of America. There your children's lives will be shaped.
Our society will not be great until every young mind is
set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination.
We are still far from that goal.
Today, 8 million adult Americans, more than the entire
population of Michigan, have not finished 5 years of school.
Nearly 20 million have not finished 8 years of school.
Nearly 54 million more than one-quarter of all America
- have not even finished high school.
Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates, with
proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot
afford it. And if we cannot educate today's youth, what
will we do in 1970 when elementary school enrollment will
be 5 million greater than 1960? And high school enrollment
will rise by 5 million. College enrollment will increase
by more than 3 million.
In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula
are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid,
and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must
give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn
from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning
must offer an escape from poverty.
But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough.
We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence
as it grows in size. This means better training for our
teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours
of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring
new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate
the love of learning and the capacity for creation.
These are three of the central issues of the Great Society.
While our Government has many programs directed at those
issues, I do not pretend that we have the full answer to
But I do promise this: We are going to assemble the best
thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world
to find those answers for America. I intend to establish
working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences
and meetings-on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality
of education, and on other emerging challenges. And from
these meetings and from this inspiration and from these
studies we will begin to set our course toward the Great
The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive
program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained
resources of local authority. They require us to create
new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between
the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.
Woodrow Wilson once
wrote: "Every man sent out from
his university should be a man of his Nation as well as
a man of his time."
Within your lifetime powerful forces, already loosed,
will take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our
experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination.
For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed
by history to deal with those problems and to lead America
toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded
to any people in any age. You can help build a society
where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit,
can be realized in the life of the Nation.
So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen
the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires,
whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?
Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape
from the crushing weight of poverty?
Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all
nations to live in enduring peace - as neighbors and not
as mortal enemies?
Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society,
to prove that our material progress is only the foundation
on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?
There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot
be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do
not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization
that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts,
if we are to build that kind of society.
Those who came to this land sought to build more than
just a new country.
They sought a new world. So I have come here today to
your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality.
So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the
future men will look back and say: It was then, after a
long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his
genius to the full enrichment of his life.
Thank you. Goodbye.