Remarks at a White House Ceremony Announcing the Adult Literacy Initiative

September 7, 1983

Thank you very much, and welcome to the White House.

I know that Barbara Bush is very disappointed that she couldn't be here with us today, but she's down in Dallas, if you haven't been told already. That's the penalty of coming in this way after the meeting has started -- I don't know who said what. [Laughter]

But she's participating in a recognition ceremony for volunteers working in Operation LIFT, a literacy organization supported solely by the private sector. And yesterday, I had the pleasure in my office of meeting Sherman Swenson. He's the chief executive officer of Dalton Booksellers, and that corporation has launched a program nationwide on this very subject.

I know that Barbara would be as encouraged as I am at the broad array of groups and individuals represented here today -- leaders from the Congress, from education, business and industry, church and service groups, and State and local government. This is heartening, because it will take a united effort by all our people to achieve our goal: the elimination of adult functional illiteracy in the United States.

In this decade, America faces serious challenges on many fronts -- to our national security, our economic prosperity, and our ability to compete in the international marketplace. If we're to renew our economy, protect our freedom, we must sharpen the skills of every American mind and enlarge the potential of every individual American life. Unfortunately, the hidden problem of adult illiteracy holds back too many of our citizens, and as a nation, we, too, pay a price.

Conservative estimates are that 23 million Americans, one in five, are functionally illiterate -- a statistic that includes men and women of every race, religion, and economic status, and every region of the country.

I asked Secretary Bell to explore with you the best ways and means to erase adult illiteracy from our country, and the result is this initiative that we announce today. Some of the key points in the initiative are: to provide initial Federal funding for the Coalition for Literacy and support the National Ad Council in its awareness campaign; to establish a national adult literacy project identifying model literacy programs and developing and testing new programs, materials, and methods.

The Department of Education will work closely with the White House Office of Private Sector Initiatives to enlist more nongovernment support. An additional $310 million has been requested for college work-study programs to include students in our effort, and I have also asked the Department to recruit literacy volunteers on college campuses. Federal employees will also be encouraged to volunteer, and the Department of Education will conduct a series of national meetings and conferences to increase awareness and promote cooperation.

As I'm sure you realize, there are many more items on our agenda, but this sampling should indicate the energy, commitment, and creativity we intend to apply to this problem.

Let us today resolve to roll up our sleeves and get to work, because there's very much to be done. Across this great land, let those of us who can read teach those who cannot. Let the lights burn late in our classrooms, our church basements, our libraries, and around our kitchen tables -- wherever we can gather to help others help themselves to the American dream.

I appreciate all that you've already done, but today I'm asking you for more. Together, we can rouse the spirit of our people and apply our enormous national will to the task at hand. If we succeed, we will have come an important step closer to making America great again.

Now, I know that all of the ladies and gentlemen here on the platform are distinguished and are very prominent, and I extend a thanks to them. But I can't help but tell you, also, this has just been a very great moment for me, because I've been a fan of Marva Collins ever since I heard of her, and I at last had the opportunity to meet her. God bless you. As a matter of fact, hearing of some of what you've done, Marva, made me ashamed of the times that I cheated in English literature on Shakespeare. [Laughter]

But I thank you all again for being here, and God bless you all. And now, they've told me I've got to get back to the Oval Office. Thank you all again.

Note: The President spoke at 11:33 a.m. in the East Room at the White House following remarks by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.