Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Commencement Ceremony for Area High School Seniors in Chattanooga, Tennessee

May 19, 1987

Lieutenant Governor Wilder, Mayor Roberts, Senator Baker and Secretary Brock and Secretary Bennett, Superintendent Loftis, and the parents, teachers, and especially you graduates, this will be brief, because I'm certainly not going to take a chance on being voted, in your yearbooks, "The President Most Likely to Talk Until June." [Laughter] But it's a pleasure to be here among you students. And of course, I love to be among teachers at this time of year. Have you noticed there's nobody happier than a teacher in May. [Laughter]

And it's good to get out of Washington, where we spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of things that are only important there. Here you have perspective and realize what the important issues are: who's got a prom date and who hasn't. [Laughter] It's also wonderful to be in this great State again. Actually, I'm somewhat familiar with your customs here, especially your unique forms of dancing. I've noticed in the Oval Office when Howard Baker doesn't agree with something I've said, but doesn't exactly want to say, "No, you're wrong, Mr. President," I've seen him do a simply wonderful version of the Tennessee Waltz. [Laughter]

Just before I came out here, I met with a group of your teachers. All of them had received Laura Handly Brock Memorial Grants for excellence in teaching. I've brought along with me someone who had something to do with that. Bill Brock, we all knew Muffet. We all salute your caring and your generosity. Most of all, we salute the memory of a great and gracious lady.

When I met those who received Brock Awards this year, I remembered that in my high school years there were a few teachers who made a great difference to me. I remember they had a certain sparkle in their eyes, an excitement about their subjects and about life itself. And I was happy to see the same sparkle and excitement, the same spirit today in those teachers who've been honored. It's a spirit that outstanding teachers everywhere share, a spirit that hasn't changed over all these years, that I suspect hasn't changed since ancient Greek times when Socrates was teaching. No, I didn't take any classes with Socrates. [Laughter] Just a few teachers can receive the Brock Award, but I know there are many outstanding teachers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. And for a moment, if you'd bear with me, I'd like all the teachers who are here today to stand up. [Applause]

Your students have worked hard to reach this graduation week. But we all know that you have too, and soon you'll be joined in congratulating them. But right now, all of us give our deepest thanks and congratulations to you teachers. And there are some others we should also remember. Would the parents of the graduates please stand. [Applause] Over the years, you've given the loving gift of long hours of work; of care in sickness, of health, in need; of being there to say keep going when maybe it wasn't so easy for your sons and daughters to keep going; of quietly standing back and smiling when hard work finally paid off. Graduation is your moment as well as theirs. God bless you, and thank you for all you've done to bring this happy achievement about.

Now, I'm told that there are graduating classes here today from 13 high schools. And I was wondering if you're really here: Central High, East Ridge High, Ooltewah High, Red Bank High, Sale Creek High, Soddy Daisy High, Howard High, Hickson High, Brainerd High, Tyner High, Kirkman Technical High, Chattanooga High, and Lookout Valley High. [Applause]

You know, it sounds like there's a special excitement here. [Laughter] But then I've had a suspicion for some time that Chattanooga is some place special. This is the only city in America that has two graduates from the area in the Presidential Cabinet. They're great Tennesseans, great Americans, and you should be proud of them-Bill Brock and Howard Baker.

But graduation is a great moment for all of you. For 12 years you've studied and worked, and now you're done and about to start on the next phase of your lives. And I'm here today to join with your parents, teachers, and friends to say congratulations. But before I do, I'm bringing congratulations from my roommate. [Laughter] She has special words of praise to all of you who, for yourselves, for your families, for your country, just say no to drugs and alcohol. And there are some of you who've been leaders in campaigning for drug-free schools here in Chattanooga. And let me say "good work" to the members of Students Staying Straight. We all thank you for your dedication to this great crusade.

Now, as I said, I'm here to say congratulations! Every one of you graduates can be proud. You've finished one of the most important tasks of your life: that of getting a high school education. And now you have before you great opportunities and, with them, a great adventure, the adventure of helping to take America into the 21st century. As America approaches the 21st century, the adventure may take you around the world and even perhaps to the Moon, the planets, and the stars. This century, the 20th, the world has seen that when free peoples have courage, vision, and determination there is no limit to the good that they can do. In this century Americans invented the family car, the airplane, jet propulsion, spaceships, the transistor radio, television, sound movies, xerox machines, computers. And these inventions have made life better for millions.

Looking at that partial list, it's hard to believe that the year before the century began the head of the Patent Office told the President of the United States that, in his words, "everything that can be invented, has been invented." And he proposed closing the Patent Office. Well, in this century Americans have found ways to make the world's harvests more abundant than ever before. Nations like India that just a few years ago couldn't feed their own peoples are now, thanks in part to our technology, not only feeding themselves but helping to feed others, as well. In this century Americans have conquered diseases and extended life expectancies in most countries of the world. I've already lived 23 years beyond my own life expectancy when I was born. Now, that's a source of annoyance to a number of people. [Laughter]

And today, as we move towards the 21st century, we're exploring technologies that may someday conquer the remaining threats to our health. While jet airliners carry passengers, even those of modest means, from coast to coast and overseas, our engineers are busy developing crafts that one day will take off from a runway and carry us into space, aerospace planes that will deliver us anywhere in the world in just a few hours' time. This is the world of unlimited promise that stretches out before you, and yet those promises won't be realized on their own. America has achieved so much because across our blessed land, for more than two centuries, men and women have understood that America's greatest gift, the gift of freedom, is also a challenge. The challenge is to be all that we can be and, through meeting that challenge, to help build the future of this free nation.

Our preparation for the next century, of course, begins with what you've been part of: making sure that all young Americans get a good education. I'll talk about this in a moment. The key here is for parents to be involved in the local schools and for schools to set high standards. But teachers and parents should hear what your Triple S clubs-and what they've been telling them—that we can't expect excellence in an environment of drugs and permissiveness. All Americans should stand shoulder to shoulder against this evil that undermines the moral fiber of the Nation and attacks too many of the young. It's time to get drugs off our campuses and out of our schoolyards.

Let me pause here and tell you one thing that disturbs me. Though some are aware of their special responsibilities and are taking positive steps, it saddens me that my old industry, the movie industry, hasn't gotten its act together and really begun to combat drug abuse. Too often drug use is still shown in a positive, upbeat way on the screen. When it comes to drug abuse, the movie industry should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Perhaps it's time to tighten up on the rating system. And this goes for the movie [music] industry, too. I just can't help but think those who talk about their constitutional right to free speech are really more concerned about their own profits. No one has a constitutional right to sell pro-drug pro-paganda to minors, but parents and communities have a right, indeed, they have a responsibility, to protect their children.

There was a time in the sixties and seventies when some adults seemed to lose sight of the importance in education of moral and academic standards. That was also a time when the SAT scores and other test scores declined. Schools lost sight of teaching basic skills; they turned to fads, including abolishing basic academic requirements. One of the worst fads was something called value-neutral instruction. Too often, we heard school officials say that teaching right and wrong was none of their business. A story about this appeared in the newspaper some time ago. A guidance counselor asked a class what they should do if they found a purse with $1,000 in it. The class decided that returning it with the money would be neither right nor wrong; it would be just dumb. Well, when they asked the counselor what he thought, he said he wouldn't force his values on them. "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong," he told the reporter, "then I'm not their counselor." Well, I'm not sure what he thought he was.

Last year our Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, participated in a kind of exchange program with his counterpart in Japan. The Japanese didn't have the same kind of decline in test scores during the sixties and seventies that we had, and we wanted to find out why. We looked at Japanese schools, and the Japanese looked at ours, and then we all compared notes. We found that in Japan when a student did poorly in math or science or any other subject parents and teachers said that the student should work harder. In the United States, when a student did poorly, as often as not, everyone made excuses and said, well, it was because of poverty or lack of ability or problems in the family. In Japan the message to students was always: You're responsible for what you make of your life. In the United States, too often, it was that you aren't.

Well, now, maybe you know someone who listened to those excuses, who said, well, I can't do it, I can't make it through school, I have this or that going against me, and, so, dropped out. Nothing is more important to opening up the opportunities of our country than finishing high school. Nothing could be better for your friends who dropped out than to go back. Nothing could be better for America either. So, if you have a friend who didn't make it or who's a sophomore or junior and is thinking of quitting, could you do something for me? Ask them to give it another try. Tell them they can do it if they stick with it. So many of you have helped friends "just say no" to drugs. Help your friends say "just say yes" to finishing school. And now, for my part, starting now, I'm going to ask Secretary Bennett and others in our administration to carry this message around the country. Let's make a big cut in America's drop-out rate. And let's pay more attention to basics, including simple literacy, so that by the year 2000 every American can speak, read, and write English and fully participate in the opportunities of our great country.

Tennessee and many other States have made a good start on the road to higher quality. Schools are once again teaching basic skills and basic values. They're once again saying that there are simple standards of right and wrong and that we're all responsible for the way we live our lives. And in Tennessee and some other States, they've begun rewarding excellence in teaching, as well, with a career ladder program for teachers. The funny thing is that as schools have done this test scores have started on the rise. You know, I think that would have happened a lot sooner if we'd listened to you, to America's students, more carefully, because every time adults take time to listen to you, the message is the same: Young people expect adults to set standards and to be honest about what is right and what is wrong.

In humanity's long journey from the caves to the mountaintops, there's never been a time or place of such promise as here in your lifetimes. Freedom, the freedom of America, gave birth to this era of opportunity, but your courage, your vision, your determination, your dedication to the fundamental moral values of our civilization-these will determine if the promise of America in the century ahead is realized, not only for you but for all Americans. Earlier this year I said it was time to begin a great American discussion about our future and how to prepare America for the world of the year 2000 and beyond. This is the world that you will see, help shape, and be part of. If you tell yourself that you're ready, that you'll go for it, then your role in molding that future begins right here, right now, today.

This message, that America's future will be as great as your dreams, is not a new message; it's as old as America itself. You can find it written all around you. This great university—started a century ago this year—it is testimony to the men and women of this State who accepted the opportunities and responsibilities of freedom and, however imperfectly, began to build a great institution of learning. The Chattanooga school system itself—started in 1872 when a group of both Union and Confederate veterans set aside old hatreds and joined hands for the common good—this school system is testimony, too. Every farm, every factory, every store, every home across our land is a monument to men and women who took into their hands the clay of America's opportunity and shaped it to their dreams.

When I was inaugurated the first time, I told a story. It's about a young man, Martin Treptow, who left his job in a small town barber shop in 1917 to go to France with our Army in World War I. There, on the Western Front, he died trying to carry a message between battalions under heavy artillery fire. On his body was found a diary. On the flyleaf, under the heading "My Pledge," he had written these words: "America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure. I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."

I want to say something about yesterday's incident in the Persian Gulf. This tragedy must never be repeated. Our ships are deployed in the Gulf in order to protect the United States interests and maintain freedom of navigation and access to the area's oil supplies. It's a vital mission. But our ships need to protect themselves, and they will. From now on, if aircraft approach any of our ships in a way that appears hostile, there is one order of battle: Defend yourselves, defend American lives! [Applause] America's sailors are putting their lives on the line in the Gulf. They have the right to protect themselves against any threat from any quarter at any time.

And now I would like to say a few words in tribute to our brave sailors aboard the U.S.S. Stark. We join with families, friends, and shipmates in mourning those who died. As have so many of our nation's fighting men before them, they gave the supreme sacrifice for our beloved nation. In life, they were our sons and brothers, our buddies and loved ones; in death, they are our heroes. Too often Americans are called upon to give their lives in the cause of world peace and freedom. Yet our glory as a people is that we do devote ourselves to those causes, not to conquest, not to territory, and not to supremacy, but to peace and freedom.

In memory of those who gave their lives I've directed that flags be lowered to half-mast. This land of freedom lives and grows stronger because the spirit of devotion and sacrifice that lived in Martin Treptow has lived in the hearts of free men—including the men of the Stark—through the ages. I know that's your spirit, too. You just showed that a moment ago. Let it shine like a great light. Don't hide it under a basket; lift it high so that its brightness will fill the land and is a beacon to the world.

I know that lately there's been kind of a tone of cynicism in our land, and some people have written and have spoken about it as if somehow we've strayed away and are going in wrong directions. Well, I don't believe that's true. You can't stand in this auditorium and look and hear all of you without knowing it isn't true. I've always believed there was a divine plan that put this continent here between the two great oceans for it to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had an extra love of freedom and that extra ounce of courage that would enable them to tear themselves away from their homeland, family, and friends, and make their way to this strange land. There is so much for us to be proud of in the country that they have built, the good that is done. Last year we broke all records in our history in the private giving to charitable and educational causes—to worthy causes—$87 billion privately given in I year by the citizens of this country—an all-time record.

I received a letter the other day, and I'm going to share just a few words in it with you. This individual wrote to tell me something—I'd never thought of it this way before. He said you can go to Japan and live, but you can't become a Japanese. You can go to France; you can't become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Turkey or Germany, and you can't become a Turk or a German or any of those other people. But he said people who live anyplace in the world can come to America and become an American.

That is our heritage, and that, as I say, is our challenge. Now, thank you all. God bless you all, and congratulations again to you young people.

Note: The President spoke at 1:57 p.m. at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's arena. In his opening remarks, he referred to Lt. Gov. John. S. Wilder; Gene Roberts, mayor of Chattanooga; Howard H. Baker, Jr., Chief of Staff to the President; Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III; Secretary of Education William ]. Bennett; and Donald Loftis, Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. Following the ceremony, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Commencement Ceremony for Area High School Seniors in Chattanooga, Tennessee Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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