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Brave New America

An address to 5,000 newly-sworn citizens of the United States at the Los Angeles Convention Center

by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
July 2, 1998

It’s great to be an American!

¡Es buenisimo ser un Americano!

Il est grand d’être un Américain!

Bangawa menjada orong America!

The same idea spoken in four different languages: English, Spanish, French and Bahasa Indonesia. Time doesn’t permit me to salute you in the other 79 languages that are spoken here in Los Angeles – Vietnamese, Swahili, Mandarin, Russian, Korean, Hindi, Portuguese and scores of others. The point is that these languages, like you, come from all over the world.

America is a mixture; it always has been and, God willing, it always will be. I myself am a mixture of English, Irish, German and French stock. In their respective homelands the English and the Irish have hated each other for centuries, but here in America they marry and produce more Americans. So now you too are Americans. Not simply citizens of the United States, but Americans. That’s a special and peculiar characteristic of this country. I could become a British subject, but I could never become an Englishman, even though my name is of English origin. I could become a citizen of Germany but never a German, or a citizen of China but never a Chinese. But today you have truly become Americans – just as much Americans as George Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt or Martin Luther King.

So what holds this country together? Certainly not a special set of common genes. Certainly not a common religion. Certainly not a common race or ethnicity. Rather, what holds America together are words and ideals.

Foreign visitors to this country who travel to Washington, D.C. are often disappointed with what they see. They say, “Here is the richest and most powerful country in history, but your public buildings and monuments are very modest when compared with those of other countries.”

But our real monuments are often overlooked by visitors. They miss the might and majesty of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. These are the monuments that define America and Americans.

I suppose at this point I should tell you that ours is the land of opportunity. Of course that’s a cliché; you’ve heard it so often you’re probably tired of it. But the fact is, it’s true! At any given time in our history, most of our leaders, most of our most powerful and influential citizens, and most of our most successful people, have come from humble origins.

We’ve had ten Presidents since World War II. Only two of them – Kennedy and Bush – came from relatively privileged backgrounds. The other eight ? Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton – all came from very modest circumstances. The same is true of our senators, our governors, our generals, our corporation CEOs, our university presidents, and our leaders in the professions – most have come from modest circumstances. I myself was raised for a good part of my boyhood on a farm in Missouri. I went to a school with just three rooms and three teachers and no indoor plumbing.

It’s even true with respect to the very wealthy in this country. Most of our richest people didn’t inherit their money from their parents, they made it themselves. Look at Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. He didn’t get that wealth from his mom and dad, he created it himself.

So what’s the secret to this extraordinary success of people from humble origins in America? Three things: strong families, hard work and a good education.

Now that you are Americans, you have inherited some special benefits. Among these is a government that is owned and controlled by the people. The government here doesn’t tell us what we need; rather, we tell the government what we want and what we’re willing to pay for. But that’s a two-edged sword: when things go poorly here in the United States, we have only ourselves to blame.

This brings to mind a particular problem that confronts all Americans today. As I said before, one of the three keys to success in America is a good education. In the 21st century, this will be even more true because so much of our nation’s economy will be tied to communications, computers, multimedia and high technology.

All of you will want your children to have an excellent education, one that gives them the ability to succeed in a rapidly changing and increasingly technological world. But in this country the burden of getting a good education for your children falls on you. We may indeed be the most prosperous nation on earth, but our educational system is not geared to insuring the success of every boy and girl who attends our public schools.

Let me give you some bad news, and then suggest a way to tackle this problem. In the United States, our elementary and secondary schools are no longer internationally competitive. To be sure, many elementary and secondary schools in America are very good. But even our best public schools seldom compare with the best public schools in Europe and Japan, and our worst schools are off the chart in comparison with our international competitors.

I don’t know of a single country in the world that wants to emulate the urban public schools of America. They all want to emulate our universities, but none want to emulate our inner-city schools.

The quality of our public schools is indeed a major national problem. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the campuses of our colleges and universities. The first year or two of higher education in America is largely remedial by world standards. That’s true at even our very best colleges and universities. I am not saying that the first two years at our most distinguished universities are remedial by American standards; far from it. But they are remedial by international standards. Compared to their international competitors, most young people in this country come to our universities poorly prepared by their secondary schools.

However, the stronger high school students in this country – say, the upper one-third – go on to attend the better American colleges and universities, which are universally acclaimed as the best in the world. With hard work these youngsters catch up with their international peers by their junior year. By the time they enter graduate school, American students are often far ahead of their competitors overseas. That’s why so many foreign graduate students come to America to study – we have the best graduate and post-doctoral programs in the world. But what about the weaker two-thirds of our high school graduates? The fact is they never catch up with their international competitors. So the reality is this: the majority of our youngsters are being short changed by our public elementary and secondary schools. That’s bad news for you, for me, and for all Americans.

Who do you think is going to fix this problem? The government? The wealthy? The intellectuals? The professional educators? No. If this problem is going to get fixed, you and I and millions of Americans just like us are going to have to roll up our sleeves and do the job ourselves.

What is it we must do? First, we must work with the children who are in school now. We must spend time with our children and grandchildren, with our younger brothers and sisters, with our nieces and nephews, with the kids in our neighborhood, with the kids in our church or synagogue. You and I must be role models, mentors, tutors, and advisors for the young people around us. We must help our children get the most they can out of our schools right now.

Second, we must work with the schools themselves. We must join the PTA, visit the schools that our children attend, get to know our children’s teachers and principals. We must complain stridently and repeatedly about shoddy teachers, dilapidated buildings, low academic standards, and self-serving school boards and unions. At the same time we must be quick to compliment teachers and administrators who are doing a good job, and we must insist that these people be especially well-rewarded. Indeed, when it comes to changing things, giving out compliments and providing incentives are often more important than complaining.

Third, we must hold our politicians responsible for the quality of education our children receive. We must ask tough questions of our political leaders, demand real answers, and if the politicos start to blow smoke in our face we must blow it right back at them. We must make public education a front-and-center issue for every politician at every level of government in this city, this state and this nation. And we must vote according to our convictions when it comes to education. Nothing motivates politicians in America more quickly than people who consistently vote their deepest convictions.

Believe it or not, if enough of us do these three simple things, we can turn this problem around. We can change our public schools from being among the worst in the world to being the very best. That’s one of the great things about America. When we Americans come together and decide what it is we really want, we almost always get it.

Again, I am pleased and proud to be among the first to welcome you as new Americans. You are the most recent participants in one of the most extraordinary experiments in human history – the building up of a nation (with lots of mistakes and backpedaling along the way) which is founded on the principle of liberty and justice for all.

There have been many great nations throughout history, but ours is the first that is open to everyone. Ours is the first to celebrate its identity as a melting pot and as a home to people of every race, creed and ethnic origin. In this lies the true genius of the American experiment.

What is most noble and admirable about us as a nation is not our wealth or our military power; rather, it is our imperfect but persistent spirit of openness and inclusiveness. I ask that each of you dedicate yourself to preserving and strengthening this noble spirit, and handing it down to the generations of Americans who will follow you.