Remarks at Convocation Ceremonies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia

September 20, 1983

Dr. Holderman, Judge Russell, Chairman Dennis, Governor Riley, Senator Thurmond, the distinguished Members of Congress, the board of regents, the faculty and administrators of this university, and you the students, and ladies and gentlemen:

I want to offer my heartfelt thanks for this honorary degree. I must confess to you, when Judge Russell presented me as a candidate for the degree I was filled with mixed emotions. It stirred up a guilty feeling that I've nursed for some 50 years. Judge Russell, I thought the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

But it was a particular pleasure to have you present me. And by the way, as I looked at that summary of Judge Russell's career -- Assistant Secretary of State, president of this university, Governor of South Carolina, United States Senator, and now Judge in the Court of Appeals -- I couldn't help but thinking just what you might have done if you had put your mind to it. [Laughter]

But thank you, everyone, for an honor that I will cherish always.

I wish every day could be as happy as this one, but I can't forget a terrible event that took place 21 days ago over the Sea of Japan that revolted the world. The Korean Air Lines massacre reminded us that in dealing with adversaries as brutal as the Soviets, America must remain strong to preserve the peace.

Peace through strength -- that's a principle the people of this State have always understood. Today, in this historic place, I believe I understand why. Here, on the grounds where you're sitting, during the War Between the States, soldiers from both sides drilled and trained -- soldiers who wanted nothing more than to go home to their families, their mothers and fathers, their wives, their children. Here, in these buildings flanking these grounds, war councils were held by officers who only months before had been running their businesses or working their farms in peace. And here, makeshift hospitals were erected for those wounded in battle. Many of the wounded left the hospitals permanently disabled; many never left them at all.

Perhaps more than any other State, South Carolina has suffered the ravages of war. And because the citizens of this State possess a keen sense of history, one of the marks of a truly civilized people, you and your Representatives in Washington have always urged our nation to avoid war by maintaining a sound defense.

So, on behalf of all Americans, I want to thank Senator Thurmond, Congressmen Spence, Campbell, and Hartnett, and the people of South Carolina for the role you've played in keeping our beloved country at peace.

And now, may I say a word to you students here today? As a new school year begins, many of you probably wonder what kind of world it is that you're preparing for. You wonder whether you'll find jobs in a nation created to offer expanding opportunity to all; whether you'll have the means to raise your own families as well or maybe better than your parents raised you; or whether you won't be able to afford your own homes or give your children the education they deserve. And yes, you have a good reason to ask those questions. In recent years, so many claimed that we live in a world of limits where all nations, even those as bountiful as our own, must learn to live with less. Perhaps you remember a report published a few years back called ``The Limits to Growth.'' That title -- limits to growth -- said it all.

Well, my college days, if you can stretch your imaginations back that far, happened to fall during the Great Depression of the thirties. The overall unemployment rate was more than a fourth of the work force, almost double -- or more than double what it is today. The Federal Government broadcast radio messages in those days telling all of us not to leave home to look for jobs because there were none; just wait at home for the government to take care of you.

Well, I remember that all my way through high school and college I had a job as a lifeguard on the banks of a river in Illinois. The job didn't pay much, but it was something. And when I left that job at the end of the summer to start classes -- incidentally, I went to another job there on the campus. It was not one of the worst jobs I've ever had; I washed dishes in the girls' dormitory. [Laughter] But I wondered whether my 4 years in college in those drab Depression days, whether I would have to go right back to being a lifeguard, and that could only be for the summer. Well, I did go back for the summer following my graduation in order to get some money to go job hunting. If ever there was a time to talk about limits to growth, it was then.

But here we are half a century later, and the American people enjoy a standard of living unknown back in the thirties or even before the thirties, before there was a Depression. During the past 50 years, each decade, employment in our country has risen on an average of some 12 million people in each 10 years, and real income per person has increased on the average of nearly 30 percent.

And think of the things that we take for granted today that didn't even exist before -- television, computers, space flights. Two big thrills in my life were hearing Charles Lindbergh had landed safely in France, and then some five decades later, watching the space shuttle Columbia land safely in California. And it was impressed on me, the great technology, when I was told, as we sat on the platform looking toward the western sky for it to come into view, that it had started its approach over Honolulu.

Well, I know that hunger and sickness in many parts of the world haven't been wiped out. But thanks to breakthroughs in agriculture and medicine, today more people on this Earth eat better and live longer than ever before in history. I've already lived some two decades longer than my life expectancy when I was born. That's a source of annoyance to a number of people. [Laughter] But life on Earth is not worse; it is better than it was when I was your age. And life in the United States is better than ever.

Now, what about your generation? Well, we've only seen the beginning of what free and brave people can do. You've all heard, of course, and studied the Industrial Revolution. Well, today our nation is leading another revolution even more sweeping as it touches our lives. It's a revolution ranging from tiny microchips to voyages into the vast, dark reaches of space; from home computers that can put the great music and film and literature at a family's fingertips to new medical devices and methods of healing that could add years to your lives and even enable the halt to walk and the blind to see.

Your generation stands on the verge of greater advances than humankind has ever known. I remember my disbelief when I was told one day of a communications satellite that could deliver the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in 3 seconds. But for you to take advantage of these staggering advances, and your children, too, we must forge an education system to meet the challenges of change. The Senator spoke eloquently of this.\1\ (FOOTNOTE) The sad fact is that system doesn't exactly exist today. Of course, there are many fine schools -- this university a notable example -- and thousands of dedicated schoolteachers and administrators. But overall, lately, American schools have been failing to do the job they should.

(FOOTNOTE) \1\Senator Strom Thurmond addressed the convocation prior to the President's remarks.

For the past 20 years, scholastic aptitude test scores have shown a virtually unbroken decline. Thirty-five of our States require only 1 year of math for a high school diploma, and 36 require only 1 year of science. And we've begun to realize that compared to students in other industrialized countries, many of ours perform badly.

Now, some insist there's only one answer: more money. But that's been tried. Total expenditures in our nation's public schools this year, according to the National Education Association, will total $116.9 billion. And that's up 7 percent from last year -- more than double the rate of inflation, and more than double what we spent just 10 years ago.

Is there an echo in here?\2\ (FOOTNOTE) [Laughter]

(FOOTNOTE) \2\The President was responding to shouting by a member of the audience.

If money was the answer, the problem over the last 10 years would have been shrinking, not growing. Despite the loud chorus from big spenders, most Americans understand that to make our schools better we don't need money as much as we need leadership from principals and superintendents, dedication from well-trained teachers, homework, testing, efficient use of time, and good, old-fashioned discipline.

It is we, not the young people of today, that are responsible for this failure. Maybe we thought we were making things nicer or easier for them after our experiences with war and with depression and all. But we have failed them in not bringing them up to the fullest extent and to the limits of their ability.

The Federal Government can do much to help set a national agenda for excellence in education, a commitment to quality that can open new opportunities to you and to our sons and daughters. And I believe the Federal Government can do that without recycling still more tax dollars or imposing still more regulations. Let me cite a few commonsense goals and guiding principles.

To begin with, we have to realize that our young people don't all go to school in Washington, but in thousands of American cities and towns, parishes, and neighborhoods. And that means that we have to restore, as the Senator said, parents and local governments to their rightful place in the educational process.

And then, too, we need to make certain that excellence gets rewarded. Teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their competence and merit. Now this may require more money, but responsibility for that should rest with authorities close to the schools themselves, not the Federal Government. Hard-earned tax dollars should encourage the best. They have no business rewarding mediocrity and incompetence.

We can encourage excellence still further by encouraging parental choice and competition, and that's exactly what we want to do through our programs of tuition tax credits and vouchers. Parents should have the right to choose the schools they know would be best for their children. America rose to greatness through the free and vigorous competition of ideas. We can make American education great again by applying these same principles of intellectual freedom and innovation to our schools.

And one more idea which may be laughed and sneered at in some supposedly sophisticated circles, but I just have to believe that the loving God who has blessed this land and thus made us a good and caring people should never have been expelled from America's classrooms. It's time to welcome Him back, because whenever we've opened ourselves and trusted in Him, we've gained not only moral courage but intellectual strength.

I'm convinced that if we can send astronauts to the Moon, we can put these commonsense principles into practice. It'll take hard work, because many special interest groups will resist. But with your support and with help from dedicated public servants like Senator Thurmond and your Members of the House of Representatives, we can give your generation and those that follow the education you'll need for the future -- a future more dazzling than any America has ever before known.

If I could leave you with one last thought, it's this: There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. A century ago, oil was nothing more than so much dark, sticky, ill-smelling liquid. It was the invention of the internal combustion engine that turned oil into a resource, and today oil fuels the world's economy. Just 10 years ago, sand was nothing more than the stuff that deserts are made of. Today, we use sand to make the silicon chips that guide satellites through space. So, remember, in this vast and wonderful world that God has given us, it's not what's inside the Earth that counts, but what's inside your minds and hearts, because that's the stuff that dreams are made of, and America's future is in your dreams. Make them come true.

And before I sit down -- and I'm not just doing this to be polite -- all the time that I've been waiting and that I've been up here, I've been wondering whether I should or not, and I can't sit down without recognizing that magnificent choir. When they sang the National Anthem, they did more than just sing it with their voices. I thought it came from their hearts, and we, therefore, listened with our hearts. And you know, that National Anthem of ours. I don't know all the national anthems in the world, but I don't know of any that end with a question. Yes, the question was the one that Francis Scott Key asked -- did we see, could we see that banner through the smoke and the bomb burst when morning came? Well, today, we can ask the same question. When he asked, was it floating o'er the land of the brave and the home of the free? We're asking the question now. We know it's still flying, but it's up to us to see that it continues to fly over a land that is free and brave.

Thank you. God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 3:51 p.m. in an area of the campus known as the Horseshoe, a quadrangle patterned after English universities.

In his opening remarks, the President referred to Dr. James B. Holderman, who presented the President with an honorary doctor of laws degree, and R. Markley Dennis, chairman of the board of trustees of the university.