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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks to Members of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges

1989-03-30

To Dale Parnell and Jess Parrish, others, thank you for that warm reception for Barbara and for me. And I'm just delighted to be here. I understand we do have two Governors here: Jim Martin, whom I saw over here, and somebody told me Carroll Campbell was here. And I want to pay my respects to them, both leaders in the field of education.

Before making my remarks, I do want to make a comment on a subject that is of concern to all Americans today. I know that you, like most Americans, are concerned about this massive oil spill off the coast of Alaska. And there's no doubt this is a major tragedy, both for the environment and for the people up there.

This morning I met with the Secretary of Transportation, Sam Skinner; with our new able EPA Administrator, Bill Reilly; with our Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Yost. And they've just returned from surveying the damage and assessing the progress of the cleanup effort. And we're doing all we can at the Federal level to speed up this undertaking.

I've directed the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to continue to give this matter top priority. I've directed Bill Reilly to report back to me as soon as possible regarding the severity of damage to the environment, particularly to marine life and the Alaskan coastline, with suggestions as to what we might do to ameliorate the situation. The cleanup will not be easy. It's in remote areas, and it's very complicated. But as with other serious disasters, we must and we will work together at all levels, public and private, to remedy the damage that has been done, and then to safeguard the precious environment for the future.

But I wanted you to know that we did have a good meeting. The report was not all negative, but there -- lets be frank, there's some very serious problems up there right now. But I'm confident with this able team and with the work of the Alaskan citizens there who are concerned, that we can do our very best to see that the damage is restricted.

Now on to the business at hand. I am delighted, Barbara, that this distinguished group has recognized your efforts. Or put it in the third person -- I'm grateful to all of you that have recognized her efforts to promote literacy. And to think, all this time I thought she was cheating at Scrabble. [Laughter] It has been said by some cynic -- maybe it was a former President -- ``If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.'' [Laughter] Well, we took them literally -- that advice, as you know. [Laughter] But I didn't need that because I have Barbara Bush -- your honoree.

As you know, Bar has taken the lead in promoting literacy, as you so, I think, properly pointed out, for more than 8 years now, traveling to the schools across this country. And one day she came back from Boston and told me that she'd seen a gentleman sitting in a chair in the corner of a schoolroom surrounded by children who were enraptured by his storytelling and his good-natured kidding. Every now and then, this man would ask a child to spell a word by tracing the letters in the palm of his hand, and he would tell them whether they got it right or not. Barbara thought that this is strange -- wondered if this was some new kind of teaching technique that you may have designed. And, no, the superintendent told her, ``He has to teach this way. You see, he's blind.'' Think of it. He's retired. He could have found a thousand excuses to retreat into his own world of darkness. And yet, he ventured out into the light to teach children to read books that he would never again see. And it's moments like these that make her efforts on behalf of literacy so very rewarding.

We are deeply moved by the plight of those who lack the skills that most of us just simply take for granted. And rest assured, we're going to continue to work with you, those of you out there on the cutting edge, to promote literacy skills. You've bestowed on Barbara an honor that will be treasured by all in our family for years to come. And still, she and I can't get over the feeling that we should be giving you, the people in this room, an award. After all, you provide adult basic education on a scale that is nothing short of heroic.

This nation grew into greatness because early Americans met the challenge of building an educational system second to none. And with the dawn of a new century only 11 years away, we're faced with a new challenge: to revitalize and restore that system that our forebears bequeathed to us; to ensure that an American education is once again the best, the very best in the world. In this important mission, we can look to leadership from an American innovation in education -- our nation's community colleges, more than a thousand strong.

Whole communities are enriched and enlightened by the cultural resources you provide: vast libraries and night schools and stages for local theatrical productions and on and on it goes. This attitude toward education as something more than a requirement of an industrial society, as an embellishment of life, rather, is uniquely American.

I believe secondary and even elementary schools can learn a lot from your success, starting with your policy of flexibility. And by this I mean the way in which you tap local talent and draw on the knowledge of experts from the private sector. When a Ph.D. on sabbatical cannot volunteer as a teacher in many of our schools, something's wrong. And that's why I've proposed alternative teacher certification, to open classrooms to every qualified person with the talent, and the knowledge, and mainly the desire to help the kids, to teach.

We must all pitch in to restore our educational system. Business must get involved, work with our schools to ensure American competitiveness. Students must understand the value of a solid education and personal responsibility in today's market. And education at all levels must follow the example set by you, by the community colleges, which are directly accountable to the needs of students, communities, and businesses. This principle of accountability should be universally applied to all educational institutions. You also serve a particular need with the disadvantaged and the disabled -- providing opportunity and choice for older citizens, women, minorities, and the handicapped.

But excellence in education is our most basic shared principle. We share the conviction that there is no such thing as an expendable student. We will never accept the notion that vast numbers of illiterate and undereducated Americans can be offset by a well-educated elite. That is not the American way. For years, rescuing underachieving students has been a quest of the heart. And today, it's also a test of our national will, a test critical to the very future of America. This may sound like an overstatement. America, after all, is still a world leader when it comes to producing Nobel Prize winners in physics, in economics, and literature. But what's the advantage for a nation with Nobel Prize-winning novelists, if their books cannot be read by 27 million functional illiterates in their own country?

I am committed to increased investment in basic research, but America can continue to lead the world in theoretical science and still lose the race in the application of knowledge. H.G. Wells wrote that ``Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.'' Catastrophe may not be around the corner, but what had a ring of truth in the 1920's sounds ominously true in the 1980's, with our highly competitive international market. Let me share a few stark facts with you.

In Japan, levels of functional literacy and student achievement are extremely high, while the Japanese drop-out rate remains very low. In America, however, functional literacy is much lower. About one in five American high school students drop out. And of those Americans who do graduate from high school, almost one in five cannot read or write at the intermediate level.

While many Americans become less educated, the standards of the workplace are becoming ever more rigorous. And the balmy days of the baby boom are passing us by. Between now and the year 2000, we're going to face a baby bust; a shrinkage of the basic labor pool for this country. According to Business Week, we will have to train or retrain as many as 50 million workers in the next dozen years alone. Think of it -- 50 million.

There is more opportunity today than ever before, but only for those who are prepared to take advantage of it. For those workers who lack skills and basic education today, a comfortable middle-class existence will be harder and harder to come by. And when some high school grads can't find jobs in a market begging for workers, then we've got a serious social imbalance; we have an education gap. Let's bridge that gap. Let's bridge it as fast as we possibly can.

You're doing it. Community colleges provide such a bridge to higher education, a ready resource for vocational training and adult remedial education. You provide access for precisely the very people who are being summoned to alleviate the coming labor shortage. Some of your programs spell opportunity for the most disadvantaged members of the work force. But they also spell opportunity for business at the same time. The disadvantaged and business are coming together in hundreds of programs -- from Colorado to Kansas to Kentucky -- called employer-college partnerships. And this friendly merger of business and academia is a sweeping force for social improvement. Everyone must work together if America is to remain prosperous and competitive in the years ahead.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing a few words of advice offered at the turn of the century, but so appropriate for our modern quest for excellence in education: ``Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably in themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble idea once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing.''

These are the words of Daniel Burnham, who was the architect of such a big plan -- Washington's Union Station, which stands out as a visual delight in a city already crowded with great monuments and statuary. Burnham's legacy is a truly living monument, with its vaulted ceilings and its gilded geometry above bustling crowds of shoppers and commuters. But it would be nothing but a wreck, an eyesore, if it had not been lovingly restored. As important as it is to reclaim our civic capital of burnished brass and polished marble, how much more important it is to reclaim our human capital.

Think, then, of our educational system in this way: as a vast and beautiful inheritance which must be lovingly restored -- not once, but every generation. And in this effort, make no little plans. Think big; aim high in hope and work. Continue to work together as a community, to help your students, to lift their vision and lengthen their horizon.

For this, and all you are doing, and for those that walked across this platform, a hearty thanks for all you have done. For this, for all you do and for what you have done, you have earned and you are earning the gratitude of a nation. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:42 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Dale Parnell, president of the association; Dr. Jess H. Parrish, president of Midland College; Governors James G. Martin of North Carolina and Carroll A. Campbell, Jr., of South Carolina.

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