Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Scholars Awards

June 16, 1983

Thank you very much. This is not exactly the climate for me to have kept you waiting out here in the sunshine. I've been across the street in the Executive Office Building doing all sorts of important things -- while I fidgeted, watching the clock go by.

It's a privilege to welcome such a distinguished group of high school seniors to the White House, along with your parents, teachers, and Members of the Congress. And on behalf of a proud nation, I congratulate the 1983 Presidential Scholars on their achievements. You are America's future and symbolize her greatest hopes. You're among our best young achievers not only in book learning but in the arts and in leadership. Your very presence here represents the commitment of your communities and your country to excellence in education.

For a democracy to function, its people must understand not only reading, writing, and arithmetic but literature, history, and values. Someone once said that, ``if you think education is expensive, you should try ignorance.'' And that sums up the situation pretty well. To be American means to understand that education is the key that opens the golden door of opportunity and, just as important, it's been the faithful guardian of our democracy. It's preserved the conscience and the character of our nation.

We know that knowledge and freedom are inseparable, and so it's no accident that we are the freest people on Earth. And we who are that, built an educational system unrivaled in the history of civilization. You're among its finest graduates, so a great deal of responsibility naturally falls upon you. Many of you wrote in your essays about the debt you owe your families, communities, and schools, and how you intend to pay them back. I'm glad you feel that way. America needs your commitment, your knowledge, and your education. Your country has made an enormous investment in you, and we're relying on your energies and abilities to carry us into the next century -- free and strong and prosperous.

While you finish your education, I plan to work with your parents and teachers and business and labor, civic and government leaders in a national drive for educational excellence. Although your instruction, obviously, has been superb, a study commissioned by my administration warned that the overall quality of American instruction was declining dangerously. As a result, we're taking steps to ensure that every young person in America receives the best education possible. One priority is to weed out teachers who can't teach and promote those who excel. We're looking into ideas like merit pay and the master teachers programs. But perhaps most importantly, we want to make ours an agenda behind which all our people can unite.

Your generation is coming of age in one of the most challenging and exciting times in our history, and we must be certain that you're prepared. High technology is revolutionizing our industries, renewing our economy, and promising new hope and opportunity in the years ahead. There's a dazzling new world waiting for you, and you must be sure to have the training and skills to compete for its rewards with anyone, anywhere. And we must also be sure that you have the vision to use them wisely.

I know all of you want to pursue your dreams in a peaceful and secure world. Like every other generation, you want the world you inherit to be one of hope, free from conflict. I have no higher priority than to make such a world possible. The prevention of conflict and reduction of weapons are subjects that concern us all.

I know many of you and your friends back home are concerned by the destructive capability of the world's nuclear weapons. Well, I want to make something very plain. I pray for the day when nuclear weapons will no longer exist anywhere on Earth.

During this administration, the United States has launched the most far-reaching programs of arms reduction initiatives and negotiations in history. Never before has any nation engaged in so many major, simultaneous efforts to limit and reduce the instruments of war. And we're determined to follow them through, day after day after day, until we succeed. We're now better able to do this because of more truly bipartisan support of our arms control proposals. With patience, resolve, and national will, I am convinced that we can reach equitable, verifiable agreements and actually reduce nuclear arsenals on both sides.

As you know, a very important ingredient of a good education is to learn well the lessons of history. Your studies must show in painful detail all that your parents and grandparents have sacrificed so that you can be free. You can be proud today that your country is contributing to this valiant struggle for peace. We're keeping our military strong for only one reason -- to deter any adversary from thinking it can achieve its goals through war. The Americans who came before you learned horrible lessons about taking the easy way out of challenges to freedom. No war in this century started because America was too well prepared. Every one was triggered because some tyrant, somewhere, figured we were off guard. The highest cost in American lives were paid not because we were too strong, but because we were thought to be weak.

In these last 2\1/2\ years, the enormity of my responsibility to preserve the peace has made my commitment to peace even deeper. But it is a complex and a difficult subject. Some may wish we could unilaterally disarm because they imagine others would follow. Well, we tried that; it didn't work. You have a responsibility and a right to speak out about your concerns. Here, as well as back home, we have that right because we're Americans. But let us always remember with that privilege goes a responsibility to be right.

We live in a free country. There's no room for dissent in other societies, with which we're too familiar. There, such dissent will cause a noted scholar to be committed to a mental hospital or stripped of his rights to study and work with his colleagues. We must not ignore those powerful forces who have no respect for our traditions of freedom and who would like to make the world over in their image.

It is the responsibility and historic obligation of each of us to do what we can to ensure that America is strong enough economically, militarily, spiritually to remain both free and at peace.

I commend those of you who have earned your medallion and the right to the title ``Presidential Scholar.'' Let this award be both a recognition of past accomplishments and a challenge to excel in the years ahead. Your parents, teachers, and others deserve all our thanks for encouraging you this far, but now it's up to you. What you've learned is a beginning, not an end. Keep your minds open to new thoughts and new ways of thinking. We're counting on you to understand and shape a better world tomorrow.

We're waiting to pass the mantle of responsibility to you for the freedom and prosperity of generations of Americans waiting to be born. Remember one thing: Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has the responsibility to preserve it and then pass it on to the next generation, or it will be gone forever.

So, I congratulate all of you and thank all of you very much. And God bless all of you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:49 a.m. at the ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.

Prior to the President's appearance, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, assisted by Beverly Fischer, Chairman of the Commission on Presidential Scholars, presented 141 graduating high school sen- iors with the Presidential Scholar medallion, which commemorates their designation.

The Commission on Presidential Scholars is a group of private citizens appointed by the President to select the scholars. Presently in its 19th year, the Presidential Scholars program recognizes students for their outstanding achievement, leadership abilities, and involvement in school and community activities. One young man and one young woman are selected from each State, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Americans living abroad. Fifteen are selected at large, and 20 are recognized for their accomplishments in the visual, creative, and performing arts.

Earlier in the morning, the President met in the Oval Office with 17-year-old Ariela Gross, a Presidential Scholar from Princeton, N.J. Ms. Gross gave the President a petition, signed by 14 scholars, calling for a nuclear freeze.