To many people our nation appears troubled, lacking a clear vision of how best to confront our many challenges and without hope that the fall elections will provide an opportunity for substantive change. As a Carolina sophomore nearly 25 years ago, I heard a particularly insightful and uplifting University Day address by John W. Gardner, then secretary of health, education and welfare. Gardner’s remarks are as helpful and hopeful for us today as they were when delivered in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12, 1967.
Yours at Carolina, Douglas S. Dibbert ’70
by John W. Gardner
Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare
My present job gives me a close-up view of the domestic problems of this nation. I’d like to comment on those problems and on the mood of the American people.
In the early years of this republic, our people had wonderfully high hopes for the new nation. It was to be a model for all mankind, a haven of liberty, reason and justice.
Today, we are unrivaled in wealth and power. We have all the outward trappings of success. But what of the dream?
I don’t think anyone would deny that we are uneasy in our affluence. Do I need to recite the list of anxieties — racial strife, poverty in the midst of plenty, urban decay, crime, and soon and on?
The Bible says, “Thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness.” One feels occasionally that for us it is that kind of noonday.
But it isn’t.
There is a kind of comfort in thinking that our troubles are more distressing than ever before. But a close reading of history denies us that comfort. The truth is that our blessings are greater than ever before. Our troubles are no worse. They are different.
It is easy to identify the problems we face in this nation today: the search for an enduring peace, the eradication of poverty, renewal of the cities, the requirement that we do justice to black Americans, the improvement of education, population control, the preservation of our natural environment, the reshaping of governmental processes, and economic growth.
But we could discuss these items exhaustively without ever getting to the sources of uneasiness for many Americans today, an uneasiness that stems not from anyone problem but from all, an uneasiness that goes directly to the question of our health and soundness as a society.
Anonymity or Participation?
Ours is a vast and complex society. It’s hard to know where you fit in — if indeed you do fit in. It’s hard to identify anything you can call your community. It’s hard to feel any responsibility for what happens, or to feel any pride if things happen well, or to know what to do about it when they don’t.
We don’t want an impersonal society in which everyone is anonymous, in which individuality is smothered by organization, in which rootlessness is the universal condition and irresponsibility the universal affliction. The non-participant individual, without roots, without a sense of identity or belonging, is a hazard to everyone. He is always liable to lash out in desperate efforts to find meaning and purpose. And if he cannot find socially worthy meanings and purposes, he will seize upon whatever comes to hand — extremist philosophies, nihilist politics, bizarre religions, far-out protest movements.
How are we to avoid these hazards?
One thing we are going to have to do is to restore a sense of community and participation at the local level, which is the only level that will have immediate meaning for large numbers of Americans.
A Barn-Raising Spirit
Individuals actively participating in a community can see their problems face to face, know their leaders personally and sense the social structure of which they are a part. Such individuals are the best possible guaranty that the intricately organized society we are heading into will not also be a dehumanized, depersonalized machine. They are also the best hope for curing the local apathy, corruption and slovenliness that make a mockery of self-government in so many localities.
Responsibility is the best of medicines. When people feel that important consequences for themselves and others-hang on their acts, they are apt to act more wisely. It is not always easy to have that sense of responsibility toward a distant federal government. It helps if the ground on which responsibility is tested is at one’s doorstep. Every man should be able to feel that there is a role for him in shaping his local institutions and local community.
To achieve that goal, we are going to have to have far greater concern for the vitality of state and local government and for vigorous local leadership both in and out of government. To eradicate poverty, rebuild our central cities, lift our schools to a new level of quality and accomplish the other formidable tasks before us will require a great surge of citizen dedication. Everyone will have to lend a hand. Industry, labor, minority groups, state and local government, the universities, the churches, farm groups, the press — all will have to pitch in.
If we imagine that the federal government alone, or federal, state and local governments alone, can solve those problems, we are deceiving ourselves. It won’t work. The great tasks ahead will require a barn-raising spirit of mutual endeavor, unremitting effort by people who have the resilience of spirit and steadiness of purpose to do the work of the day as it has always been done against odds.
Toward a Saner Path
For most of us today, life is reasonably comfortable. It is easy to suppose that we are safely insulated from the problems that beset this land, that they are someone else’s problems, not ours.
But they are grimly and irrevocably the problems of our generation, and none of us can escape. The consequences of poverty, racial conflict, environmental pollution, urban decay and other problems will affect the quality of life for everyone in this land, the comfortable and the uncomfortable. It won’t be a decent life for any of us until it is so for all of us.
Consider the recent tum toward violence. Where will it lead? There are bitter and vindictive people on both sides who hope for the worst. But you and I have to believe that a saner path is possible.
Despair in the ghettos cannot be cured by savagery in the streets. Violence begets violence. It is time to speak out against those on either side who through words or actions contribute to conflagrations of bitterness and rage. They wreak more havoc than they know. They may create ruinous cleavages and paralyzing hatreds that will make it virtually impossible for us to function as a society.
Today all groups in our national life seem caught up in mutual recriminations-black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove, Democrat and Republican, labor and management, young and old. I say it is the first duty of responsible citizens today to bind together rather than to tear apart. The fissures in our society are already dangerously deep. We need greater emphasis on the values that hold us together. If the nation is to have any future, people must care quite a lot about the common enterprise.
We know that many are willing to die for their country. We also have to care enough to live for it. Enough to live less comfortably than one might in order to serve it. Enough to work with patience and fortitude to cure its afflictions. Enough to forgo the joys of hating one another. Enough to make our most cherished common purposes prevail.
The cohesiveness of a society, the commitment of large numbers of people to live together and work together, is a fairly mysterious thing. We don’t know what makes it happen. If extremists of the right and the left succeed in pulling it apart — as many, with purposeful enthusiasm, now seem bent on doing — will anyone really know how to go about repairing it?
The Light of Belief
Back of every great civilization, behind all the panoply of power and wealth, is something as powerful as it is insubstantial: a set of ideas, attitudes and convictions — and the confidence that those ideas and convictions are viable. No nation can achieve greatness unless it believes in something and unless that something has the moral dimensions to sustain a great civilization. If the light of belief flickers out, then all the productive capacity and all the know-how and all the power of the nation will be as nothing, and the darkness will gather.
In Guatemala and southern Mexico, for instance, one can observe the Indians who are without doubt the lineal descendants of those who created the Mayan civilization. Today they are a humble peopIe, not asking much of themselves or the world and not getting much. A light went out.
The geography and natural resources are virtually unchanged; the genetic makeup of the people is no doubt much the same. They were once a great people. Now they do not even remember their greatness. “What happened? I suspect that, in the case of the Mayans, the ruling ideas were too primitive to sustain a great civilization for long.
What about our own ideas? Can they sustain a great civilization?
The answer depends on what ideas we are talking about. Americans have valued, sought and believed in many different things — freedom, power, money, equality, justice, technology, bigness, success, comfort, speed, peace, war, discipline, freedom from discipline and so on. I like to believe that most Americans would agree on which of those values might serve as the animating ideas for a great civilization.
In my present job, I deal with a side of American society in which the existence of certain ruling ideals is visible and inescapable. I see children being taught, the sick healed, the aged cared for, the crippled rehabilitated, the talented nurtured and developed, the mentally ill treated, the weak strengthened.
These tasks are not done by unbelieving people. These tasks are carried forward by people who have at heart what I like to call the American Commitment. I believe that when we are being most true to ourselves as Americans we are seeking a society in which every young person has the opportunity to grow to his full stature: a society in which every older person can live out his years in dignity; a society in which no one is irreparably damaged by circumstances that can be prevented.
All too often we have been grievously unfaithful to those ideas. And that infidelity can be cured only by deeds. Such ideas cannot be said to be alive unless they live in the acts of men, unless they are embedded in our laws, our social institutions, our educational practices, our political habits, our ways of dealing with one another. We must act in the service of our beliefs.
The release of human potential, the enhancement of individual dignity, the liberation of the human spirit — these are the deepest and truest goals to be conceived by the hearts and minds of the American people.
And these are ideas that can sustain and strengthen a great civilization. But we must be honest about them. We must live by them. And we must have the stamina to hold to our purposes through times of confusion and controversy.
Gardner’s speech was originally printed in the November 1967 issue of the Alumni Review.