Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Scholars Awards

June 19, 1984

It's just occurred to me that with this blistering weather, maybe I could do something that might set a style you'd appreciate. [Laughter]

[The President removed his jacket.]

It does feel better, doesn't it? [Laughter]

Well, I'm delighted to be here. There, I started it out again -- I was just with Rich Little last night -- and here I am again saying, ``well'' to start things out. [Laughter] In his imitations of me, he says that's a characteristic.

But I'm delighted to be here today. This is a great day for each one of you. And I hope you'll treasure this day all through your lives.

As you know, this is the 20th anniversary of the Presidential Scholars program, a program that has done much to reward initiative and encourage excellence in America's schools. It's also the second opportunity that I've had to host a gathering like this. And I have to confess I'm always a bit uneasy in the midst of all this scholarly achievement. I guess it's because I start thinking back to my own days as a student.

In fact, sometime ago my alma mater, Eureka College, gave me an honorary degree, and I thanked them profusely. But I had to admit that they had compounded a sense of guilt I'd nursed for about 25 years, because I always thought the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

So, I congratulate all of you today on taking advantage of the tremendous educational opportunities you've been offered and encourage you to keep up the good work. I don't think it's too optimistic to say that you can look forward to an age where a great value will be placed on your obvious capacity for achievement and excellence, an age that will be rife with opportunity.

In many ways, the things that we've been doing here in Washington the last few years have been part of this effort to open up new opportunities for all Americans. As you know, that means cutting back on the size and scope of government, reducing its drag on the private economy.

You know, it's one of the oldest lessons of history, but one that mankind always seems to forget: Too much government has always meant the oppression of the human spirit and the stultification of human progress. As Jefferson once said, ``I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.''

Now, you think about that sometimes when you read some of those hostile columnists that say I spend a lot of time napping. [Laughter] I really don't. [Laughter]

But I think that our own time is increasingly going to realize this truth. Repelled by the suffering caused by aggressive totalitarianism, our century seems to be awakening to the great prospects of human freedom and the democratic way of life.

That's why I've always believed a truly American foreign policy means more than the pragmatic business of getting along with other nations. It also means standing up for values like human freedom and our own obligation to see that freedom is spread someday to all the nations of the Earth. In a few short years, this will be the task before you, and I think you're preparing yourself well for it.

I'm especially encouraged by some of the fundamental changes that we see in American education today. We're beginning to realize, once again, that education at its core is more than just teaching our young the skills that are needed for a job, however important that is.

It's also about passing on to each new generation the values that serve as the foundation and cornerstone of our free democratic society -- patriotism, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, the ability to make the crucial moral distinctions between right and wrong, the maturity to understand that all that we have and achieve in this world comes first from a beneficent and loving God.

So, we're gathered here to congratulate all of you on your success, on the credit that you've brought to yourselves, to your schools, and to your communities. We're here, too, to congratulate a select group of teachers for the enormous and unselfish dedication that they've shown to your welfare and to the highest standards of their own profession.

I had a teacher one day in a high school and on a visit to the principal's office -- he was also the principal -- make a very wise remark. He said, ``It isn't very important what you think of me now.'' He said, ``What I'm concerned with is what you're going to think of me 15 years from now.'' And even before 15 years was up, I knew I'd been in the hands of a very good friend and a very fine teacher.

But I think we also do well today to reflect on the fact that education and learning, success and power are only relative values; that they must be grounded first in the higher values of right and morality if they're to have any meaning at all.

You know, being President, and -- there's a word here for the -- someone in their seventies, but I am not sure that I can pronounce it. [Laughter] So, anyway, being in that range -- [laughter] -- I've discovered, for example, that people do tend to let you get away with giving them some advice. So, while I want to extend my congratulations to all of you, I hope you'll also permit me a few words of counsel and advice.

Thomas Jefferson, whom I mentioned a few minutes ago on the business of governing, also had some wise things to say about the business of living. When he was advising his nephew what path he should follow to find success, he reminded him that he must pursue his own and his country's best interests with what he called the ``purest integrity, the most chaste honor. Make these then,'' he said, ``your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that in any possible situation or under any circumstances that it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.''

Well, I think that's good advice for all of us. And once again, congratulations to all our Presidential Scholars, their families, and our distinguished teachers who are here today. And, now, Secretary Bell is going to do the honors for me and distribute these awards.

And I'm going back to the Oval Office and do what a little girl told me to do who wrote me a letter one day and told me all the problems that she thought I should solve and then said, ``Now, get back to the Oval Office and go to work.'' [Laughter] And I'll do just that.

Thank you all, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:20 p.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. Following his remarks, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell presented 141 graduating high school seniors with the Presidential Scholar medallion.