Public Papers

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Scholars Awards


Thank you all, and welcome to the White House. Ronna, you're in charge of keeping the rain off. [Laughter] Secretary Cavazos and Ronna Romney and members of the Commission, sponsors, guests, distinguished teachers, and Presidential Scholars: Let me officially welcome you to the White House.

You know, that great English leader, Benjamin Disraeli, once said: ``Youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity.'' And the poet James Lowell was moved to write: ``If youth be a defect, it is one we outgrow only too soon.'' Well, as this year's Presidential Scholars, you remain the trustees of our posterity. And I hope you'll accept some counsel from one who is a little long in the tooth, maybe. If youth is a defect, treasure it as many years as you can.

We meet here on the 25th anniversary of the Presidential Scholars program, and to honor some of the best and the brightest students in American education. This marks the highest scholastic honor that a President can bestow, and I am honored to bestow it. For while already you have done much, I know you will do more, and not for yourselves alone but for nation and neighbor -- learning, caring, helping education lead the way.

I believe in education. And so do you, for the evidence is your lives. And you come from backgrounds of every race and creed, and from all 50 States, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and families living abroad. And you've excelled in the classroom and outside it, through leadership, character and, yes, community service. You know, as I do, how education can unleash your talents. Take Presidential Scholar Eben Hewitt, of Muncie, Indiana -- he started a Shakespeare Club at his high school; or another scholar, Clarity Haynes, of Washington, DC's Ellington School of the Arts -- she is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish. I'm a little jealous -- some say I'm not even fluent in English.

Education can be the great uplifter -- individually, and for America. Perhaps Meath Bowen, a Presidential Scholar from Anchorage, Alaska -- I think I see her -- put it best: ``An educated person,'' she said, ``has choices, alternatives, and can exercise freedom of mind in all areas of life.''

Now, I know what you're thinking: It won't be easy. And you're right, there'll be roadblocks along the way. And I'm reminded of how once, marking an examination paper written shortly before Christmas, the noted scholar teaching at Yale, William Lyons Phelps, came across this note: ``God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas!'' [Laughter] Phelps returned the paper with the annotation: ``God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year!'' [Laughter]

Roadblocks? Sure, you bet. But you can overcome them, and as you do, remember that an educated person also has duties and responsibilities. I've said that in America the definition of a successful life must include serving others. Well, that goes double for America's best. Many have labored to share their knowledge with you, and you can give them no greater gift than to share your knowledge with others.

In that spirit, a number of people have brought you here, and they deserve our thanks -- like Ronna Romney sitting right here, Chairman of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, and the Commission sponsors. And let me salute the 47 Commission members, whom I just met with, who chose you, 141 honorees, from America's high school graduates. But most of all, I want to thank, and ask you to thank, all of those people who form the fabric of your life. Today and in the years to come, remember that favorite teacher -- the history instructor who was a friend and mentor; the biology teacher who did the impossible -- helped you dissect a frog. And remember the guidance counselor who cared or the football coach who gave of his time and of himself as well.

And remember those who love you most and point you toward the stars, what scholar Christine Oh, of Bellville, Georgia, has called ``the backbone of my success: my family.'' My friends, this is your day, but it is also their day. So, let me close with a story your family might appreciate about learning and teaching and scholars of all ages. The story goes that physicist James Franck was professor at Gottingen University in Germany when Robert Oppenheimer, then only 23, was being examined for his doctorate. On emerging from the oral exam, Franck remembered -- this is the professor -- Franck remembered, ``I got out of there just in time. He was beginning to ask me questions.'' [Laughter]

Well, in coming years, you'll ask many questions, questions about your faith and future, problems and priorities, about what we can become, why we are here. Education can provide some answers, and so can the people who believe in it and you -- your lifelong local minister, the father who trudged his son to Little League, the mother who toiled night and day so that her daughter could go to college. Trust these people; make them proud. Honor them by the lives you lead. And as you do, remember how their values, which are education's values, can make ours a better, richer, most decent world.

To every Presidential Scholar, Barbara and I and our great Secretary, Larry Cavazos, give you our heartfelt congratulations! And to all of you here, thank you for coming to the White House. God bless you, and God bless our great country. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:37 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.