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Public Papers - 1991 - October

Remarks to the Annual Convention of the National Fraternal Congress of America


Thank you very much. What a wonderful warm welcome. Thank you so much, and thank you, Pat Donlin, for the kind words, the kind introduction. And may I salute Bishop Daily; it's an honor to be with you, sir; and so many, many friends here today.

Ladies and gentlemen, when America won its independence two centuries ago, our founders chose a national motto. And they decided upon e pluribus unum: out of many, one. And it symbolized the Federal union of the 13 original States, and captured the new Nation's spirit of openness, tolerance and liberty.

Early on, early America was not the ethnic and religious melting pot of today, but neither was it monolithic. A great religious diversity arose in our land from Puritan New England, through Newport and New Amsterdam's early Jewish settlements, through the Middle Atlantic communities of Dutch Calvinists and German Lutherans, through Maryland's Catholic colony to the Southern States' Anglicans and Presbyterians.

Constitutional protection of freedom of conscience made the melting pot possible, even inevitable. E pluribus unum became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And true to our motto, America attracted Slovaks and Poles and Italians and Greeks and Cubans and Vietnamese, Chinese and Lebanese and Irish by the millions.

America became a beehive of community self-help, fraternalism. Fraternal benefit societies helped millions of immigrants make the economic and cultural transition from the Old World to the New. Fraternal societies, they offered life, life insurance and health insurance to Americans who might not otherwise have found those protections. Local lodges and councils of fraternal groups gave -- and still give -- millions of hours to voluntary social service.

Motivated by fraternal ideals, millions of your members bring cheer to residents of nursing homes, share friendship with retarded kids, give elderly neighbors rides to the store, to church, to the doctor. Your members' voluntary gifts contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to educational, medical and social institutions. The fraternalist tradition illustrates America's distinctive commitment to community service, and voluntary service flourishes more in America than in any other Western society. Fraternal societies were the prime examples that I listed in 1988, when I first spoke of what Pat referred to, of America's ``Points of Light.''

Today, we look to voluntary fraternalism to lead us back to our roots and away from a debilitating social experiment -- Government paternalism with all its mandated benefits designed by some subcommittee on Capitol Hill.

Before the advent of the modern welfare state, voluntary associations, usually religious or fraternal in character, provided most social services. Fortunately, we still have a strong voluntary sector in social services. And as I look at the problems of this country -- and I've just come from a media association for fighting drugs; media people come together to fight against drugs. But as I look at social service, I see that we need this spirit of voluntarism more than ever in the history of our country.

I mentioned the media against drugs. And then just before that, I met with the Red Ribbon Campaign. These are family people, the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, coming together. Some of you may well be in it on this Red Ribbon Campaign, people voluntarily coming together to work in their communities to help eliminate in this instance the scourge of drugs. Parents getting involved more actively now and family, with their kids who are threatened by this scourge. I cite it just because it's one more of many, many examples of what I am talking about here today and what you all understand so well.

Voluntary social service institutions: they provide creative competition for government agencies and other voluntary groups. They offer not just aid, but also choice to those whom they serve. They belie the dangerous notion that anything public must be governmental. I am not opposed to the Government. I'm proud to lead the Federal Government. But everything has a proper place in our society, and we must not allow the Government to crowd voluntary groups out of the social services field. Nor should we let the Government monopolize public education.

America needs to revise, we say renew actually, renew its thinking about public education. From the earliest times, Americans have sought to provide quality education as universally as possible. Historically, our schools have served the same public purpose, whether their organizers were Methodist pastors or Catholic nuns or county councils. Strictly speaking, any school that meets fundamental State standards and does not violate antidiscrimination laws provides public education.

But schools that aren't operated by government and funded by tax dollars are finding it harder and harder to survive on such an uneven financial playing field. Not many parents can afford both high tax levies and private or parochial school tuition. Surely many among you have wrestled with a ``choice'' that wasn't a fair choice. Maybe you wanted your son or daughter to attend a Christian day school or a Lutheran high school but couldn't afford to.

Our America 2000 education strategy aims to restore real freedom for parents to choose schools for their children. We're confident that greater choice will encourage creative competition among private and parochial schools, improving education for everyone. At the same time, we want to foster imaginative new approaches to school organization and management. We're enlisting, incidentally, parents, innovative teachers, business leaders, churches and voluntary associations in the enterprise of creating what we call, and properly so, ``New American Schools.'' We're not going to just patch over the old approach. We're trying to revolutionize the schools in this country.

I hope you will join us in working to renew American education. And you can help by getting the message to your Members of Congress, your State legislators and your local school officials. And you can help by getting involved in your own schools. But as ambitious and promising as these financial and organizational reforms are, there's far more that we must all do to improve American education.

Schooling takes up just a small part of a youngster's time. It may surprise you how little time is taken. From kindergarten to high-school graduation, our children on an average spend only 9 percent of their time in their school. That's just one-eleventh of the time. Our children spend the remaining 91 percent of their time at home or playing with friends or maybe out at a video arcade.

Here's the most shocking statistic: Children in one survey said that they spend just 15 minutes a day talking with their parents, 15 minutes. And moreover, the U.S. Department of Education reports that our eighth-graders spend an average of more than 21 hours per week watching television, but fewer than 6 hours a week doing homework.

If these surveys actually reflect wider patterns, we could make our schools the best in the world and still find ourselves in deep trouble. Kids and parents have to talk, and parents have to take an active role in encouraging their children to learn and excel in school.

As I contemplate my job and the great problems facing our country, and I talked to Barbara about this a lot, we worry about the disintegration of the American family in our society. We want to see it strengthened so these kids today whose lives are threatened by this new scourge of narcotics will have the love and affection and caring from parents that can make a tremendous difference.

This may not be the Government's business, but it's the Nation's business. It's the business of our people and I would like to be more effective if I could find ways, and I know Bar would, too, Barbara would as well, to find ways to help strengthen the fabric of the American family.

So as our administration works for reforms to give parents more choice in schools, naturally we want parents to join us, to speak up, to fight for their rightful freedoms. And we want you to join us in this cause.

Even more fundamentally, our kids' future, our Nation's future, demands that parents responsibly use all the freedom and power they already have. Parents or guardians, with some help from grandparents and pastors and good neighbors, mold our children's moral character. And they supply the motivation and discipline that young people need.

Learning begins at home, whether the subject is math or science or literature or civic virtue. I hope that people haven't become so accustomed to a big government role in education that they forget that the real responsibility for education begins and ends at home.

De Tocqueville understood. ``There is no country in the world,'' he wrote, ``in which everything can be provided for by the laws or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.''

The framers of the Constitution understood. And so did the great men and women, a century later, who founded America's flourishing alliance of fraternal societies.

I am confident that you, too, understand and accept the responsibilities that accompany our most precious freedoms. It wasn't costly, an activist government that made America great. Our strength and generosity flowed from individual initiatives and voluntary associations. Personal faith inspires public progress.

The American promise that beckoned your fathers and forefathers to these shores reaches out to new generations, to new waves of immigrants. With your numbers, with your strength of spirit, I know America's fraternal associations will form a great part in keeping this promise for generations to come.

It is a great pleasure to visit with you for this short time, to pay my respects, to urge you to stay involved in your wonderful, I would say, heroic work.

Thank you all and may God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 1:59 p.m. at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to W. Patrick Donlin, president of the National Fraternal Congress of America, and Thomas, V. Daily, national chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

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