June 20, 1985

Secretary Bennett and ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It's an honor to welcome to this historic house so many young Americans who have already shown just how much they have to offer our country.

In 1964 President Johnson established awards to honor academic excellence among our high school students, and in 1979 the program was expanded to include achievements in the arts. This year, as always, the Commission on Presidential Scholars has worked hard to make the final choices.

Chairman Beverly White, I want to thank you and all of the Commission members for your fine efforts. Twenty students have been selected for superior achievements in the arts. In the academic category, fifteen scholars have been selected at large, while one young man and one young woman have been chosen from each of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and American families living abroad. It all adds up to 141 of our country's finest students -- young Americans who can inspire us all.

That inspiration is of particular importance now that we're involved in a national effort to improve American education. Just 2 years ago, the Department of Education report entitled ``A Nation at Risk'' concluded that if a foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that then existed, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

Since then we've made dramatic progress. All 50 States now have task forces on education, while 43 have made their graduation requirements more demanding. Perhaps most telling, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have risen in 2 of the last 3 years, and that's for the first time in 20 years.

But we still have more to do, much more. Secretary Bennett has done a great deal to direct our efforts by focusing on what he calls the three C's: content, character, and choice. Just as we're guided by those faithful old three R's -- reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic -- the three C's can help us understand the fundamental aspects of good education.

And when I looked over your award citations, I realized that the 141 of you here today provide a beautiful illustration of the three C's in practice.

The first C is content, and in recent years many of our schools have placed too little emphasis on the actual knowledge that our students acquire. Well, today we must go forward with the basics, making certain that all American students learn to read, write, and speak clearly, develop an ability to work with numbers, acquaint themselves with the fundamentals of American history, and come to understand the core values of Western civilization. Content, in other words, means seeing to it that every American student masters a specific body of knowledge.

Each of you has done just that. Kenneth Berryman, for example, will spend this summer working the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena studying orbital mechanics. Now, I'm not a scientist myself, but I believe that means that Kenneth knows a thing or two about mathematics. Or consider ballerina Yolanda Jordan. Yolanda has mastered the arduous and demanding technique of classical ballet.

As for the second C, in achieving these awards, each of you has demonstrated one crucial element of character -- the ability to work hard and to stick with it. Greg Johnson of Kentucky grew up in a housing project, the son of a single mother who works at a second job cleaning a bank at night to support her family. He started school in a readiness class for children not quite prepared for first grade. This spring Greg graduated as the first black valedictorian in the history of his high school.

Others among you have demonstrated that you understand the importance of giving of yourselves to others. Hannah Joyner, of South Carolina, for instance, will spend this summer working with children who have learning disabilities. Then there's Shannon Holliday, of Alabama, who's long been active in her community's drug abuse program. Together, you show that education is not a matter of knowledge alone but of things like honesty, kindness, and loyalty.

And the final C is choice. A large part of the problem today is that too often schools cannot be held accountable. Accountability is improved when parents are able to choose between a variety of schools, and again this principle is evident here today. Many of the artists among you attended schools designed for talented young performers. One of you, Monty Greek, of Nebraska, spent his early years in the kind of school that, until today, I thought only people my age remembered -- a one room schoolhouse.

In case after case, your group demonstrates that schools that are in some way unique, that offer parents a different choice, can help to foster excellence. And there we have it -- the three C's of content, character, and choice as illustrated by 141 remarkable young Americans.

Many of your parents are here today. They are the ones with the ear-to-ear smiles. [Laughter] And as your first and most influential teachers, they merit a good part of the praise. You just made their day. [Laughter]

Many of your teachers are also present, and they deserve special gratitude. Their efforts have given you the greatest gift that one person can give to another -- a well-trained and perceptive mind. I know you'll -- well, you already have joined me in thanks to your teachers.

But the main honors go to you. You've given your studies your best efforts for so many years, and you've set a wonderful example for all American students to follow. So, on behalf of a grateful nation, I commend you.

You know, sometimes there are pleasant tasks in this job of mine, like this one this morning. But sometimes, also, there are responsibilities that get very irksome, like the one that I now face in which, without getting a chance to meet each of you individually, I have to turn you over to Secretary Bennett, and I have to hasten back to the Oval Office.

And I have that on good authority that that's what I need to do because early in my administration, a metropolitan newspaper asked children -- young people -- to write in and tell them what advice they would give to the newly elected President -- me. And I have never forgotten one of them -- from an 11-year-old girl. She told me a number of things that I should do, and then she wrote, ``Now, get back to the Oval Office and get to work.'' [Laughter] So, I'll do that.

Thank you all. Congratulations to all of you young people. God bless you all. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:32 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House.