September 10, 1988

My fellow Americans:

It's September, a time when our children once again return to school, bright with promise and eager for instruction. I'm happy to report that if the record of the past 8 years is any indication the prospects for their education are bright -- brighter than they've been for more than two decades. Test scores are up, reversing a calamitous drop in scores over the years between 1963 and 1980. Attendance is up, and the number of kids who drop out of high school is down.

The recovery of our schools has been a genuine grassroots accomplishment, and it proves the solution to problems is not to throw money at them but to come up with commonsense answers and start applying them. I'm proud that during our administration George Bush and I have been there with a sympathetic ear and a helping hand. But we've only just begun. Far too many American students are graduating from school without the skills they will need to prosper and the knowledge they'll need to grow as adults. And no one knows this better than America's parents, who rose up at the beginning of the decade and said: Our children are not getting the education they want, need, and deserve.

The education our children want is the ability to discover the answers to the basic questions we all have: Who am I? Where do I live? And what is the world around me like? Children yearn to learn, and their capacity for it is one of the God-given wonders. The education our children need is the ability to read, write, and reason as well as any student in any country in the world. They need it, and the Nation needs it, as well, if we're to prosper and grow. The education our children deserve is the kind no American should be deprived of, for it's the basic instruction in what it means to be an American.

I believe that the education of all Americans must be rooted in the self-evident truths of Western civilization. These are the truths that have been passed down like precious heirlooms from generation to generation since the generations began. Since the founding of this Nation, education and democracy have gone hand in hand. Thomas Jefferson not only wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as our third President but also founded one of our most distinguished institutions of higher learning, the University of Virginia.

Jefferson and the Founders believed a nation that governs itself, like ours, must rely upon an informed and engaged electorate. Their purpose was not only to teach all Americans how to read and write but to instill the self-evident truths that are the anchors of our political system -- truths, to quote Jefferson, such as: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.''

This is our precious heritage. And our political freedoms -- the freedom to speak, to practice our religions, to assemble peacefully -- are the product of ideas that were born and nurtured in the great tradition of Western civilization. That tradition does not say "some men'' have these rights; it says "all men,'' everywhere on this Earth. Whether of Asian, Hispanic, or African descent, no matter what color, every American is the inheritor of our great cultural tradition.

That's why I've supported, and continue to support, all efforts to teach our children about our culture, to read great texts and learn their lessons. Bill Bennett, our Secretary of Education, has just reported on the state of elementary education in our country. That report, entitled "James Madison Elementary School,'' presents an outline for what every elementary school curriculum should include. It is suffused with the glory of Western civilization, and I salute it.

We owe our children no less than to instruct them in what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been known and said. And yet, just as forcefully, I want to say that this curriculum is only a guideline for school districts to follow if they think it right. The final arbiter of what a child should learn is not the state, but the family and the community in which the child lives.

And so, I support the right of all parents to choose the education they believe is best for their children, in the form of magnet schools and State programs like Minnesota's, which permits parents to choose which schools their children can attend. In addition, programs like Youth 2000, which teaches kids to rely on themselves and to say no to drugs, are vital in our efforts. Yes, we're blessed to be the recipients of this cultural bounty. And we must be responsible to, as the Constitution says, "secure the blessings to our posterity.''

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.