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Remarks at Aspen Institute National Education Summit

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Aspen Institute National Education Summit
Washington, DC
September 15, 2008

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Thank you very much. I’d like to thank you, Walter, for that kind introduction. But I’d also like to thank you for the opportunity that Walter did give me to play with some students from the Aspen Music School. I was a student myself in the Aspen Music School in 1972, and the experience was terrific and it absolutely convinced me that I had made the right choice to move on from music. (Laughter.)

I’d also like to recognize my good friend and colleague, Margaret Spellings. We have been – (applause). We’ve been in this together for a while now, Margaret. And Margaret is a trailblazer, and I don’t know anybody whose heart is more in her work than Margaret. So thanks for everything you do.

I’m glad to see that former Assistant Secretary Patricia Harrison is here. Patricia was our Educational and Cultural Affairs Assistant Secretary at the State Department, and she’s now the CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and we remain very grateful for her years of service.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about education. As an educator, I have a really firm appreciation for the work that is done each day and every day in the classrooms across America to enrich lives and to uplift people. So I know that I am among educators and that I don’t need to convince you of the essential role that education must play in our society. I know too that I don’t have to convince you that we have a lot of work to do, because we are really not succeeding at that task in the way that America must.

There are still fewer students graduating in key fields of science and technology than we need. The United States graduated just a little over 67,000 engineers in 2006, in a world that needs engineering and the creativity that it brings. Currently, the United States ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of students receiving degrees in science or engineering. Three decades ago, we were third.

And from my world, I am concerned that less than one percent of our youth are studying critical languages. Now, that would be trouble enough. But it is even more troubling that many children, particularly from underprivileged backgrounds, are simply not finishing high school. And we know that that means that fewer Americans are going to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century.

Now, as someone who has devoted her life to education – I’m an educator – this breaks my heart. And it breaks my heart because I am also someone who has benefited greatly from our educational system.

But today, I want to tell you not why it breaks my heart as an educator, but why it worries and concerns me as Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, as I’ve traveled around the world representing this great country which I love and which I admire so much, I have seen firsthand the importance of confident American leadership. In a troubled world, in a world in which sometimes values are out of kilter, in a world in which the challenges to the kind of world that we want to be are many, I know that the United States does indeed stand as an anchor of values, an anchor of principle – not a perfect one, to mind you, because the United States of America has certainly had its struggles with its own principles – but as the country to which everyone, and I want to underline everyone, looks for leadership, confident leadership.

Now, I am quite certain that America will not be a confident leader in the future if, in fact, we cannot compete. And we cannot compete if our population is not educated to the tasks of the 21st century. I can assure you that if we feel that we have lost our ability to compete, we will turn inward. We will fight to protect a shrinking economic pie internationally, not look to be an engine to expanding that economic pie.

One of the remarkable things about the United States after World War II was that we enjoyed probably 50 percent of the world’s GDP at the end of World War II. And yet, we didn’t seek from that position of strength to protect our share, but we helped to create an open trading system, a system of open markets, believing that if every country grew and if all people prospered, we would all do better. That’s how we dealt with our strength. And when we were confronted in – at the end of the 1950s by a Soviet Union that seemed to be racing ahead of us in science and technology, the so-called Sputnik challenge, how did we answer it as Americans? Not to get fearful, not to turn inward, but to say that’s a challenge that we can take on, and to decide we were going to go to the moon. And not only that, but we took on the Sputnik challenge by making it the patriotic thing to do to learn Russian. Now, I was one of the beneficiaries of that national defense languages approach, having, myself, fellowships under that program to learn to speak Russian.

And so when we have been challenged in the past, we have believed and been confident in our ability to meet those challenges because we were confident in the strengths of each and every individual American to meet the challenge and to succeed. So America, in order to lead from confidence, is going to have to train and educate its people so that we know that we are indeed capable of competing.

But more than that, more than that kind of common wisdom thinking about why it is that we need to educate our people, I want to argue to you that this also has to do with leading from a sense of who we are. You know, around the world, I know that America’s military strength is not what’s really admired. It’s respected, to be sure. And I know too that not even our economic power is really admired. It is desired and it is even, at times, envied. America is admired around the world because of who we are and what we represent. We are a nation where you can get ahead regardless of your circumstances. We are a nation that values merit and that values hard work over where you came from. That’s, in fact, what draws so many immigrants to this country, a nation of opportunity and creativity and innovation that lets each and every individual achieve at the highest level possible for that individual. It’s what leads people to try to make a better life for families who are living in subsistence, and it’s the same impulse that drives all of those people to come from around the world as software engineers to go to the Silicon Valley. And if you stand in an elevator in Palo Alto, California, you will see the faces of every place in the world and you will hear the accents of every place in the world.

So at its core, that is what the world believes about America, that it is a place that if you can just be there and get there, you can succeed, because America has an open pathway to success for all.

Now, that belief of others reflects very much how we think of ourselves. We have in this country, as all countries have, a myth about ourselves. Now, a myth is not something that is not true, but it is a kind of organizing principle, a kind of organizing set of beliefs about who we are. It was once called the log cabin myth. You could grow up in a log cabin and be president. And we really believe that. We really do believe that it doesn’t matter where you came from; it matters where you’re going. We also believe that even if our children – even if we didn’t do very well, well, things will be better for our kids.

Now, in my own family, this value was so strong in grandparents who just believed that America, despite the limited horizons of Birmingham, Alabama, was going to be better for their kids and their grandkids than it was for them. My grandfather on my mother’s side sent all five children to college. In fact, when my uncle tried to drop out and to go to work in Pennsylvania, my grandfather got on a train and he went and got him, and he got him back and he put him in college someplace. (Laughter.) And when my dear aunt, who now lives in Norfolk, Virginia and is a retired school principal, decided that she was going to run away from college and make her fame and fortune in New York instead, he got on a train and he went to New York, and he deposited her with my father’s mother and sister to go to college. That was how strongly he believed in education, because he understood that with an education, it really didn’t matter what circumstances there had been; it mattered what would happen next, what the educated person could be.

And I’ve seen that play out time and time again, as a Stanford professor standing in front of a classroom and seeing on the one side a fourth generation Stanford legatee and right next to that kid the son or daughter of an itinerant worker, knowing that after their experiences at Stanford or at any other university, all that would matter is that they had been educated. It wouldn't matter where they came from; it would matter where they were going.

Now, that would be reason enough, an instrumental reason to be able to compete, a philosophical reason to be able to live up to our great national image of ourselves. But there’s more. Education is more than just a way to get a job. Education is more than just a way to achieve a little bit more. Education is truly a way to become who you were really meant to be. Its transformative power is what really makes education special. And that transformative power, making certain that each and every individual can achieve whatever they can and become who they were really meant to be, is what makes for the richness of America.

And again, in my own family, there was a wonderful example of this. My grandfather on my father’s side was a sharecropper’s son. He was living in Ewtah – that’s E-w-t-a-h – Alabama. (Laughter.) And one day, he decided he wanted to get book learning. Why, nobody really knows. And so around 1919, he started asking how could a colored man go to college. And they said, well, you see, there’s this little Presbyterian school about 60 miles from here called Stillman College, and you could get a degree there. So my grandfather saved up his cotton and he made his way to Tuscaloosa to go to Stillman College.

And he made it through the first year, and then in the second year they said, “All right. Now, how are you going to pay for your second year?” And he said, “Well, I don’t have any more cotton.” They said, “Then you’ll have to leave.” And he said, “Well, how are those boys going to college?” They said, “Well, they have what’s called a scholarship. And if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, then you could have a scholarship, too.” My grandfather said, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” (Laughter.) And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since. (Laughter and applause.)

And this same Grandfather Rice, at the height of the Depression, came home one day and he was just so happy, my father said. He had nine leather-bound books: the works of Victor Hugo, the works of Shakespeare. And my grandmother said to him, “John, how much did you pay for those books?” And he said, “Ninety dollars.” The height of the Great Depression. She said, “How are we going to pay for them?” He said, “Don’t worry. We can pay for them on time.” My grandmother was not amused. (Laughter.)

But he knew something, that the sharecropper’s son, exposed to Shakespeare and Victor Hugo would somehow be different. And one of the proudest moments for me was when my father – my grandfather died in 1954, just before I was born – but when my father presented the five remaining leather-bound books to me on the day that I got my Ph.D.

Now, I suspect that Granddaddy Rice would have known that passing this on from generation to generation to generation was passing on more than opportunity. It was passing on a dream. It was passing on a sense of who you could be. And that, more than anything, is what education does. And by the way, in a country in which we are not bound by blood or by nationality or by religion, it is extremely important that we know that we do, in fact, have this ability to make ourselves over and over again, and that it is available to all. You see, it is our diversity that defines us. But on this, it is our sameness, the fact that we are bound by this ideal, the core that every individual matters, that each individual has a right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we know that in today’s world, the pursuit of happiness is a lot more fulsome and a lot more possible if you are educated.

And so what we do when we fight for and struggle for education, when we confront what President Bush has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” is we fight for America’s confidence as a leader: confidence that our people will be capable of taking the jobs of the 21st century so that we do not have to turn inward and protect; confident that we will live up to our great national myth that it doesn't matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going, and that for each successive generation that will be truer; but confident too that, as a people, we are united in our belief and in our certainty that our national belief in the pursuit of happiness, the transformation that takes place when you’re educated, is available to all.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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