Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Scholars Awards

 

June 16, 1988

 

How do you do? Thank you all. I'm delighted to have all of you here today. And I want to thank Ronna Romney and the commissioners and the program sponsors for their generous contributions that make all this possible.

 

I want you to know the Presidential Scholars program has been a personal favorite; it always gives me a chance to reveal my own uneasiness in greeting such accomplished young scholars as yourselves. I like to remind people that some years ago my alma mater, Eureka College, gave me a degree in economics and sociology. But then 25 years later, they invited me back and gave me an honorary degree, and that just compounded a sense of guilt I'd been nursing for 25 years because I thought the first one was honorary. [Laughter]

 

We do have something in common though this morning: All of you are seniors, and I'm a sort of senior myself. [Laughter] Believe me, when you get to be my kind of senior status there's no greater fun than a chance to meet your kind of senior. All those cliches you've been hearing from your commencement speakers about how much you mean to us and how you represent the future and hope and the best in our lives -- well, they're more than just cliches. So, having all of you here today is a morale boost, and I thank you for coming by.

 

I know I'm also supposed to remind you about something your commencement speakers have been talking to you about: gratitude. And by the way, that reminds me of a story. Maybe you've been warned about me and stories. [Laughter] Just think of this as part of the historical experience of the Reagan White House. Anyway, this involves a missionary. He was being chased by a hungry lion. And the lion was getting very close and just about within reach and ready to pounce. And the missionary dropped to his knees in prayer and said, ``Oh, Lord, transform this beast into a believer.'' And the lion dropped to his knees and brought his paws together and said, ``Oh, Lord, let us be grateful for what we're about to receive.'' [Laughter]

 

But then I've been reading some of the comments you wrote about being a Presidential scholar, and I realize you're way ahead of me on the matter of gratitude. For example, James Grove from Missouri wrote, ``Thanks to mom and dad for letting me stay up so late.'' And Tom Tsao from New York thanks his parents for ``waking me up in the morning.'' And then there's Wil Shapton in Michigan who thanks ``my grandmother for reading to me out of the encyclopedia when I was little and my father for teaching me how to perform a kinematic structural analysis of my matchbox cars.'' [Laughter] But more seriously, Brian Curtis says he's grateful ``to my parents for supporting all my academic endeavors always with unconditional love, not dependent on success or failure.'' And Deeling Liu Teng of Illinois, ``I would like to thank my family. Their strength has enabled me to strive for goals above my own expectations.''

 

So, you can see that I don't have to do much reminding. You're wise to remember your parents and teachers and counselors and principals who worked so hard with you for this moment. And I hope you know that gratitude isn't mentioned by us old folks just because we want to get in on the action and take a little credit for your success. Really it's another way of trying to pass along to you something valuable we've learned, something that will help in the future.

 

Secretary of Education Bennett has quoted a scholar who said that he sometimes worried about young people because while many of them know ``where they are in space, they don't know where they are in time.'' Well, he meant simply that many young people have a sense of the dynamics of the modern world, but may not be quite as aware of the older values and deeper wisdom that made the creativity of this modern world possible.

 

Gratitude is a way of reminding ourselves where we are in time, a way of reminding ourselves that becoming a truly sophisticated and learned person begins with understanding the great teachings of our civilization about God and humanity, teachings that make ideas like human dignity, democracy, the rule of law and representative institutions possible. And it's why all of us can be grateful to Bill Bennett for what he's done to remind us of the importance of the values implicit in civilization and the need to teach and transmit from generation to generation a moral education. Loyalty, faithfulness, commitment, courage, patriotism, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong -- I hope that these values are as much a part of your life as any calculus course or social science study. And so, do remember: Gratitude is a way to a deeper wisdom. Look for that deeper wisdom; believe me, there's a great hunger for it. And here you're in luck. As Americans, you have a special claim on it.

 

I got a sense of that hunger, by the way, 2 weeks ago, when I was in Moscow talking to the young people there at Moscow State University. And you know, I told them about a gathering much like this one that had occurred just before I left for the summit meeting. We had here in the East Room a group of students about your age, half of them Russian and half of them American. They had been in a joint conference together. And I made the point then that really it was very difficult to tell any of them apart, that young people are much the same all across the world, as are people of every age. It's just our governments that are based on different principles.

 

And that's the job before you and those students in Moscow for the remainder of this century and into the next one: to bring peoples of other cultures together in that common bond of humanity and to understand that the best way to do this is to stand forthrightly for the values of our whole way of life and what it is based upon, to speak for freedom, to argue the cause for democracy, and always to bear in mind those fundamental, moral distinctions between systems of government that believe in the dignity of the individual and other systems that simply see the individual as a cog in the great machine of the state.

 

Now, I know all of this strikes a very serious note on what is and should be a tremendously joyful moment for all of you. So, that's why I want to tell each of you that we're grateful to you, too. We're grateful for all the hard work you've done, but also for believing in yourselves, for reminding us that there are such things as the future and hope and capable young hands to take up the great tasks that we must leave unfinished.

 

So, congratulations to all of you. From one senior to another, I wish you all the best as we both set out to begin yet another chapter in our lives. I'm nearing the epilog, and you're barely through the introduction. But I'm grateful for this moment in which we could come together. Now, I'm going to go back inside and do what a little girl told me to do in a letter she wrote to me the first week I held this job. She wrote all the tasks that confronted me, and believe me, she had the problems down just about in proper order, too. And she urged me to get ahead with the business and solve them. Then she wound up with the last line in the letter that said, ``Now get back to the Oval Office, and go to work.'' [Laughter] And she was right all the way.

 

So, I think I'll do that and let you get in the shade. We maybe should have had this particular function indoors, but we hadn't counted on exactly this weather. So, again, thanks to all of you, and congratulations to all of you, and God bless you. [Applause]

 

Thank you, and God bless you all. Thank you all. Keep clapping. The press are yelling questions at me. [Laughter]

 

Note: The President spoke at 11:31 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Ronna Romney, Chairman of the Commission on Presidential Scholars.