Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Scholars Awards

June 17, 1987

I thank you, and welcome to the White House -- Secretary Bennett, Ronna Romney, and all of you, our 1987 Presidential Scholars. You're the 23d class of Presidential Scholars and the 5th of those I've had the opportunity to meet and congratulate. I have to admit, I always feel a little uneasy when I'm in the midst of so much academic achievement.

Sometime ago, my alma mater, Eureka College, out in Illinois, gave me an honorary degree. I was very grateful, but I had an uneasy feeling that -- well, a sense of guilt that I'd nursed for a number of years, because I always suspected that the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter] But as I said, today we're here to congratulate all 140 of you on your outstanding achievements and to congratulate some others as well: your teachers and your parents. I know who the parents are; they're the ones grinning from ear to ear. [Laughter]

In the last several years, America's found a new way to talk about education, a way summed up in just one word, and you're an example of it: excellence. Now, it may sound strange to say that the emphasis on quality is new, but a few years ago it seemed that we'd lost sight of excellence as the goal in education. Too many schools had turned to fads like grade inflation and abolishing basic requirements. And then 4 years ago our National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report card on American schools. They found that high school students then were scoring lower on achievement tests than at any point in the past 26 years and that 13 percent of all 17-year-olds were functionally illiterate. They said that if a foreign power had done the damage to our schools that we ourselves had permitted, we might have considered it an act of war.

Well, there's one thing about America: Once we recognize we have a problem, we pitch in, pull together, and solve it. In the past 4 years all 50 States have set up task forces on education. Many States have stiffened graduation requirements and begun to reward quality teaching. All across the Nation, communities have recognized that the key to a good education is not in the pocketbook, in how much we spend, but in the heart, in the values that guide learning. It's in mastering basics, the three R's -- reading, writing, arithmetic. And it's in what you might call the three F's, and those are faith, family, and freedom. The funny thing is, as schools begin to return to the basics of skill and character the test scores stopped falling and started up again.

You yourselves reflected these basics in the essays you wrote as part of the Presidential Scholar program. Not all of what you wrote dealt with values; some had to do with careers you aspire to, although those were also revealing -- music, dance, teaching, scientific research, medicine. A few of you, of course, are undecided. One of you wrote, ``Well, I'd like to have a career eventually. That's a start.'' And let me say, you know something, don't worry about it if you haven't made up your mind yet; that's okay. When Eureka College gave me that first degree, I still couldn't say to anyone exactly what I wanted to do. So, just look what happened. [Laughter] But that's how I felt when I was your age. And it's not true that Abe Lincoln was my guidance counselor -- [laughter] -- or that I was his. [Laughter]

But you also wrote about the values that have guided and inspired you and helped you in your achievements. And it's hard not to notice those three F's coming up again and again. You wrote about the values that your faiths have given to so many of you, values like respect for hard work and achievement, honesty toward yourselves and others, and compassion for humanity. You showed a clear sense of right and wrong, and that sense is the foundation of all true achievement.

Your writing also showed your dedication to your families. Secretary Bennett has told me that most of the time when you see a good student you will see devoted parents in the background. Well, you've shown your own devotion to them as well. One of you wrote: ``I am extremely grateful to my parents. Mom and Dad teach me by example -- their high moral code and their constant love, support, and humility.'' Another, who was brought up by his mother, told this story: ``Mother held down three secretarial jobs and managed to keep the house. And then, soon after my ninth birthday, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. By the time the State disability ran out, she had completed vocational rehabilitation and was able to set up her own little business in our home. It has been nearly 9 years now, and my mother and I are still fine and still making it together very much on our own.'' All I can add to that is God bless her.

All of you wrote essays on freedom, including the freedom to speak, to think, and to worship -- our sacred national heritage. You showed that you've accepted the responsibility that freedom places on the shoulders of each of us, responsibility for our own lives and for taking part in building and guiding our country. Some of you came to America from places that don't have these freedoms. And one of you said this about the value of freedom: ``I am deeply indebted to America. Three times did my family flee from tyranny, and America saved us. In this country we've worked hard and protected our freedom even harder. Only in America do dreams come true.''

You know, if you haven't heard somebody say this -- I haven't known it too long myself -- but it was an observation someone made that I think all of us should be proud of. You can go to another country -- you can go to Japan and live there, but you can't become Japanese. You can go to France and live there, but you can't become French. Germany, Greece, name all the countries -- but anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and become an American.

Lately I've noticed some talk in some quarters about how America's become selfish. Those who say that seem to think that more big government and higher taxes are signs of an elevated moral state in our Union. Well, I believe that's dead wrong. The greatness of this land of freedom is not in the strength of government but in the strength and decency that we as free men and women bring to our daily lives. Your parents, your teachers, and you yourselves are the proof of that. Yes, every farm, every store, every factory, every home across our land is a monument to men and women who took into their hands the clay of America's opportunity and shaped it to their dreams. The great goal of my generation is to make sure the opportunities that you find when you finish school are as full as those that awaited us. Then America's future will be as great as your dreams. And let me say, it looks to me like that future will be in pretty good hands.

Now, I have to get back to my office right now. They've kind of got me scheduled pretty heavy today. In fact, Senator Baker's right here to make sure that I do get back there. So I'm going to turn the rest over to Secretary Bennett, and he will present the Presidential Scholar medallions on my behalf. So, all I can do is turn it over to him and say congratulations to all of you. Thank all of you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education, and Ronna Romney, Chairman of the Commission on Presidential Scholars.