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Address to Garrison Forest School
September 23, 1993

Lewis E. Lehrman

When I spoke with Mrs. Bowman early this week, she suggested I tell you the truth about the American educational system. But now I recall that, banished to the political wilderness between World War I and World War II, Winston Churchill explained his plight: "Tell the truth once" he said "and no one will ever speak to you again".

There are at least 23 million adult Americans who are, for most practical purposes, illiterate. That does not mean they can't interpret the sonnets of the Bard of Avon. It means that they can not handle the minimum literacy demands of daily work.

The Adult Performance Level project, working from 1980 census data, estimated that 34 million people can't cope with reading. 52 million can't handle arithmetic. 40 million know practically nothing abut how our government works. 46 million can't balance a simple family budget.

Two thirds of our colleges are now forced to offer remedial education courses to high school graduates. The University of California at Berkeley, one of the nation's world-class universities, draws from the top eighth of high school graduates. Even so, half the freshmen at Berkeley took remedial composition classes.

The U.S. Navy reported that a quarter of their recruits can't handle manuals geared to a ninth grade reading level. The textbook trade has coined the term 'dumbing down' to describe the simplification of texts - shorter words, more pictures, less serious content.

These sad facts obscure the many outstanding public schools we do have.

But all who can read - or who watch television - know of the ominous decline in standards, in values, in discipline, in performance, throughout much of our nation's government-operated school system.

Is this because stingy property owners and taxpayers have starved our schools? Hardly.

In the past generation, expenditures on education as a percentage of gross national product - doubled. In public schools, spending per student - in constant dollars - tripled. Where did all the money go? Much of it went into growth of bureaucracy. For example, I have read that the Chicago public school system with 500,000 pupils, has 3,500 men and women in administrative positions. But the Chicago parochial school system, with 250,000 pupils, has only 35 administrators.

The truth is, the American people, the taxpayers, are not shortchanging their children; nor do they short change the government schools. It's the other way around.

If we, the parents and grandparents of these children, are to reverse this disastrous trend, if we intend to displace the cult of mediocrity with the pursuit of excellence, our work as true patriots is surely cut out for us.

I do have a few suggestions about how we might go forward - some of them inspired by my experience, observing for three years the teachers and traditions of Garrison Forest School. And this is as it should be. For to you, the leaders and sponsors of Garrison, the responsibility of our educational institutions has passed. If our countrymen are to be rededicated to universal, quality education, you will be the ones to bring it about. What might we then do?

First, I think we need to be clear about what education must mean. To be sure, it does mean the ability to understand a bus schedule and to balance a checkbook. But first, all of these basic skills must be informed by the highest goal of education - the moral formation of the character of free men and women. We must therefore rebuild the curriculum to produce literate, law abiding citizens, whose consciences are grounded in the very principles which gave rise to the birth of the republic on July 4, 1776. July 4 is a day to be celebrated, not because a new nation was born on the shores of the Atlantic, but because a unique country came to life, grounded, not in ancestral territory, neither in blood, nor in racial ties, but instead, for the first time in human history, a new republic was born of the universal principle that all persons are created equal, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and they are endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. This is the unique American proposition, as Mr. Lincoln called it. This was the special patrimony we Americans inherited from our immigrant forebears, coming as they did, and still do, from ancient nations, warring races, and moribund economies the world over.

The question is, can our generation, can the women - and the men - of Garrison Forest quicken the spirit of excellence among our countrymen at this turn of the millennium? The answer to this question will determine whether the coming century will be the Second American Century, or whether the first - and the last - lies now in past. In this place and at this time, there is, I think, a special resonance in this question, for it truly is the spirit of Garrison Forest that gives me hope to say that we can rededicate ourselves, as Americans, to the high standards of excellence in education - which made America first among all the nations. But to do this, no longer can the coming leaders of this generation, passively accept the steady 'social promotion' of our young people who in truth long for leadership and growing opportunity. As graduates and parents of Garrison, as leaders in your chosen callings, do I say too much when I suggest that you must insist everywhere, as you do here, upon the highest standards of academic distinction in all of our schools, the careful assessment of how well each child, and each teacher, and each school performs in measuring up to those standards. For this task, you have earned the moral authority, for these have been the very standards of Garrison to which you have become accustomed, rigorous as they have been, even amidst the modesty of your claims.

You have learned well that students are not equal in all their abilities or intelligence - that is a fact of life. But you have also learned that each can excel by developing her talents. Some will achieve more, some less. But after the Garrison experience, can we ever again accept an educational system, government or private, that holds back the gifted to patronize the mediocre, in the name of improved social adjustment. Instead, we might take as our model that of the 'Good Shepherd.' You remember that the good shepherd never leaves the weak behind. But neither does he hold back the strong. Every child does deserve our help to be all he or she can be. And your conscience tells you that a society that blindly heeds the leveling impulse, an impulse often grounded in the cardinal sin of envy, will end up just that way - leveled - and consigned to the ash heap of history.

This would be a travesty of the heritage of a great nation, especially America, the only one at this crucial moment of world history able to lead a world longing to be free, educated, and prosperous.

In this great work ahead of us I think our challenge will be, above all, a mighty effort to restore to a place of preeminent national honor those teachers who view their profession not as a civil service job, neither a base for political activism, nor a sinecure - but as the highest of dedicated callings. And the women of Garrison will have to work hard, and their husbands, too, so that good teachers are paid more in our society - much more. Only thus can we bring others to support schools, like Garrison, which create new opportunities for skilled, sensitive, value-oriented young people to impart their learning and enthusiasm to future generations.

Perhaps you will conclude, as I have, that it is time to reject the politically correct prejudice which denigrates private schools, a conceit born of envy, a prejudice which labels private schools sectarian, or discriminatory, or elitist - somehow unAmerican schools, as the history of American education unequivocally demonstrates. Private, parochial, and common schools were the first open schools of the American experiment. They have performed brilliantly for people from all walks of life over the longest periods of time. And they show every promise of outstanding performance in the future.

I believe this, for I saw it arrayed before me in the faces of the graduating seniors of the Class of 1993 of the Garrison Forest School.

So to those of you who will indulge my plain words, permit me a few more intimate thoughts. You, as parents, could have sent your girls to a government school. Your property taxes already paid their way. But to have done that, you would have denied them a great opportunity. For here, at Garrison, they were taught by teachers who freely love to teach. Here, they were taught the values of work, duty, sacrifice. Here, they were provided with the skills to excel at college and to distinguish themselves among their countrymen in the careers and the households they create. We are thrice blessed. While we should take advantage of all that Garrison has provided our girls, we should never lose sight of how lucky we are that they graduate from one of the foremost schools in America.

Indeed, we must never forget that, as great-great-grandchildren and even children of immigrants, we could do this, only in America.

As Garrison-bred Americans, special citizens, we know that the destiny of our girls is to give the best example to the whole world of the genius of freedom and opportunity. So, may I say to you: -

As you give of your substance to endow Garrison, your daughters will surely honor you, the fathers and mothers who have sacrificed so much that they might come here. You will have enabled the school to honor the dedicated teachers of Garrison, all the men and women who have given of their time and energy that our daughters may prosper - all those silent heros and heroines of Garrison who have created the spiritual and physical endowment to keep our school a great hall of learning. Surely we should reward the teachers of Garrison who, bridging the gap of generations, have come to be our friends. Our daughters have already forgotten their eccentricities and their shortcomings; indeed, we can even hope our daughters will forget the many eccentricities and shortcomings of their parents.

But because of what we have given them here, they will remember well the ardor of our love, the patience of their teachers, and our inextinguishable hope for their future. And when the time comes, perhaps twenty or thirty years from now, when our own grandchildren seek excellence, knowledge, and right belief, no one of us will ever forget the priceless gift that Garrison Forest gave to our girls.

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