UNITED STATES MEMORIAL HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
Thank you, Dr. Reich, for that gracious introduction and for the invitation to be here today as part of the series, "Visions of the 21st Century."
It is an honor to be included in the truly remarkable array of speakers that you have gathered together.
And thanks to all of you who braved the elements to come down to the Mall today. If my presentation offers nothing else, it certainly is the occasion for warmth.
The best thing about the Inaugural festivities is that they're attended by citizens from all walks of life -- all parts of the country -- people of all ages and all backgrounds.
Whether you're a democrat, a republican, an independent, or 'undecided, this is a wonderful weekend to be an American.
It is a time to appreciate once again the precious process we call democracy.
It is a time to learn from our yesterdays, and prepare for our tomorrows.
It is a time to talk candidly about America -- our gains and our setbacks, our dreams and our fears, our direction and our destiny.We are the oldest and strongest democracy on the planet - and we have achieved so much to reach this moment in history:
But also you see that in this century we have created a system in which about two out of three high school graduates go on to college, a marvelous achievement in expanding the American Dream.
And yet, as we come together to inaugurate the last President of the century -- a President who has made education one of his very top priorities -- we know well that our future contains any number of challenges which will define who we are as a people and what it means to be an American.
Think about just some of them:
In foreign policy, protecting our global environment. Assisting the world's destitute. Combating high-tech terrorism. Building global markets. And, as this museum demands of us, defining America's role in a post Cold War world in which bitter conflicts, oppression and, yes, slaughter, remain everyday realities.
Here at home, there are daunting tasks as well: Maintaining our economic strength. Increasing wages. Improving race relations. Strengthening our schools. Revitalizing our cities. Reforming welfare. Saving Medicare. Helping the working poor. Balancing a fair budget. Reducing the power of money in politics. Promoting civility and good citizenship. Protecting life everywhere on the continuum where life is threatened.
I could expand the catalogue indefinitely, but you see my point. In the 21st century, we will face countless opportunities disguised as insoluble problems. And that future, in the words of the distinguished American philosopher Yogi Berra, "is not as far away as it used to be."
The question whether we take responsibility for our future or it simply overtakes us is ultimately a question about education.
That's because, in our society, in our democracy, among all our great national assets, one in particular stands tallest.
Not our wealth, not our land, not our corporations, not our technology. But our people. Our people.
Citizens are America's greatest natural resource -- always -- the only resource that really matters.
Their character. Their heart. Their values. Their faith. Their intelligence. Their skills. Their cultures. Their toughness. Their creativity. Their decency. Their morality.
Let me pause on that word. Their morality.
Elie Wiesel, who will speak later, has written, "I've come to believe there is only one response, the moral response. Whatever we do must be measured in moral terms."
That leads to the single most important idea I submit to you today:
For individuals and for nations, for the one and the many, education is a moral imperative.
That's why it's so important that we citizens become active in education: We have to seize it, own it, debate it, experiment with it, modify it, and imagine it anew.
For if education fails to meet the real and changing needs of all members of the civic body, our entire society will be radically diminished. In fact, my friends, it will fail.
Back in the 1800's, the utterly American historian Henry Adams tried to imagine what American education would look like in the 20th century. The quotation I'm about to read comes from a conversation Adams had with himself (he liked to do that):
"The child born in 1900 would be born into a new world, which would not be a unity but a multiple. [I] tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it. [I] found [my]self in a land where no one had ever penetrated before."
Well, no doubt, our children born in the year 2000 will inherit a birthright to a land even more new and more multiple than Adams could have dreamed.
And it is precisely our job to penetrate that land, to imagine tomorrow's world, and to ask the questions today so that American education -- in all its vast diversity -- is ready for tomorrow.
So I've come here today to talk with you about what are, for me, four of those right questions.
In fact, four questions I think we have to ask incessantly, insistently over and over again, about every place of learning.
They don't lend themselves to easy answers, but if you ask them often and urgently enough, you will have the great satisfaction of thinking like a parent.
Because these are the kinds of concerns that keep parents up at night -- no matter what the age of their children or where they go to school.
And so, even though I am not a father -- we Jesuits have strict rules about that -- I'd like to pose the first question as if I were, because nobody can ask it with more passion than a parent:
Is my child's school allowing her to become all that she can be?
We are all given one life on this planet, one brain, one set of natural abilities and inclinations, and the most devastating indictment of any educational arrangement is that it succeeds only in holding students back.
Think of the 21 year-old college grad -- educated in lecture halls and never known by a professor.
Think of the 15 year-old girl who wants to cure cancer while her school doesn't offer chemistry.
Think of the 12 year-old boy who has the aptitude for foreign languages -- except that he doesn't know it and never will.
Think of the 8 year-old boy who can't take part in an after school program because the neighborhood is rough and his parents believe quite rightly "better safe than sorry."
Think of the frustration of parents who love their children and see their potential -- but have to live with the knowledge that an education system promising opportunity was -- in fact -- stacked against them.
And then think of all the waste in our society -- the novels that don't get written, the businesses that don't get launched, the votes that don't get cast, the peace that doesn't get made.
The poet Thomas Gray once lamented the fate of "mute, inglorious Milton[s]" who go to their grave without reaching their full potential. I do as well. We don't have a person to waste in our society. Everybody counts. When education fails the child, it fails all humanity.
And from this belief flows the second question we need all Americans to ask at the local level: Is our children's education sophisticated and practical enough to launch them into secure, rewarding careers in the new economic mainstream?
Most of today's workers will hold many jobs in their careers. Workers often will be forced to reconsider their direction. Their success will depend on an ability to adapt to constant change.
Many young Americans who once might have gravitated into good jobs in the manufacturing sector will find that those positions aren't there. In the new economy, they may need excellent writing skills. They may need mastery of a second language, the readiness to embrace rapid technological change, and strong backgrounds in math and science.
And yet, we live in a country in which 3000 children drop out of school every single day.
A country in which, according to one expert, only 17 percent of college graduates have even the minimal level of scientific understanding to function in today's society.
As educators, we have an obligation to anticipate impending changes in the labor market and then develop the academic programs our children need and deserve. And where that's not being done, changes need to be made, plain and simple, with great involvement from the business community.
There's also another kind of preparation our students will need if they are to work and to live in 21st-century America, and that raises my third question:
Are we preparing young people for the opportunities that come from living in our multicultural society and in a world where the old international barriers are shrinking by the day?
Because the fact is, if our students are not learning second languages,
... if they're not interacting with people of different backgrounds,
... if they're not alert to the many-shaded richness of America's past, present and future
... if they're not being exposed to the global village and thinking of themselves as citizens of the world,
... then they're probably being educated for an era that doesn't exist, and maybe never did.
Here, I must confess some bias, since Georgetown University has a long tradition of leadership in cross-cultural learning.
In 1789, Georgetown was founded by the nation's first Catholic Bishop, John Carroll, who believed that higher education must not be segregated on the basis of religion and social class.
He founded our University on the principle of inclusiveness -- and we have become, of course, even more diverse and international than John Carroll could ever have imagined.
This is a good thing at Georgetown. I am someone who believes that diverse classrooms lead to a special kind of learning. Cultures thrive not in isolation, but in contact, exploration and dialogue.
I like the way the Polish Jewish immigrant Anzia Yezierska expressed this back in the 1920's. She wrote that, of all possible professions, she chose to be a writer because she hoped to "build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself ... to open up my life and the lives of my people to them."
Educators can do more to build these bridges.
And yet, as we invoke the high ideals of this Polish Jewish immigrant woman ...
... history's contradictory testimony cannot be denied.
How terrible it is to remember that, at the time of the Holocaust, Germany's system of education, and certainly of higher education, was arguably as advanced as any in all the world.
Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg -- these cities were major intellectual centers -- the places for the most gifted students to learn about science, technology, philosophy and music. Germany was a leader of the world in the arts and sciences.
And still, the country carried out genocide.
I am not sure which is the most important lesson to draw from that anguishing fact.
But I do believe the wrong lesson is that education can't stop hatred.
It can, and it does, and you shouldn't work with students if you're not prepared to try.
Thus, the fourth question we need to bring to every place of learning:
Are young people being taught in a manner that emphasizes morality, justice, good citizenship and the claims of common humanity? Are they learning to lead? Do they accept responsibility? Will they bring a habit of ethical reflection to bear on the decisions they have to make?
Or has education become so standardized, so secularized, and so professionalized that these values are now snuffed out like a flame in a box?
At Georgetown, I'm quite certain, the candle is burning bright. Our Catholic, Jesuit tradition is based on ethical reflection and moral principle, inspired by the inseparability of the love of God and neighbor.
Community service is a major part of campus life. The ethos of the place is to be engaged with the world. Our faculty have great faith in the students -- indeed, they expect to run the country through our alumni, and that confidence is infectious.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, one of the unique strengths of American society is the extraordinary leadership exercised by citizens through their civic associations and activities -- as teachers and healers, pastors and employers, protectors and creators.
At Georgetown, this tradition remains strong. It must flourish everywhere.
We must not lose the civic spirit Tocqueville found:
Democracy is a state of mind.
It is a predilection to cooperate.
It is the people's will to form a larger whole.
And, education in America must always nourish this spirit.
So, today, I have come to you bearing questions -- if not answers -four questions that touch the core of any educational enterprise from preschool to graduate school.
I have stayed away from policies and proposals, and from the more technical questions of funding, jurisdiction and federal legislation, not because those questions aren't important -- they are -- but because I think these larger questions get closer to how the American people experience and think about education.
And, on this day of dialogue, I look forward to hearing your questions, your ideas and your perspectives about what I have called the moral imperative of education.
In closing, please let me note the extraordinary suggestiveness of this forum.
Tomorrow, our ongoing miracle of democracy will be in full flourish. Today we commemorate that achievement in this haunting place of tragedy.
And so we have before us two realms of possibility -- the best and the worst that we humans can be. American education must never be neutral about which prevails.Thank you.