A Note from Gaston
Welcome back. I’m looking forward to another productive academic year. As you are returning to your schools and colleges this fall, our country is facing tough times. We see it every day: housing prices, declining stock market, an expensive war, growing unemployment, and high gas and food prices. However, when you look back at America’s history, you can see that with courage, compassion and determination, we have overcome many obstacles and challenges.
I was born at the beginning of World War II, at the start of an enormous struggle between the forces of democracy and freedom on one hand and the forces of totalitarianism and oppression on the other. Although it’s difficult to imagine today, in 1940 America was a young and still unproven player on the world stage.
One hundred and sixty-five years prior to World War II, America fought a successful revolution against a major colonial power and initiated a bold new experiment in democracy. We began as a few cities clinging to the edge of the Atlantic. We then expanded across a vast continent. We waged a long and bloody civil war and wrestled with the best way to reconstruct our union. Our country raced to keep pace with the changes brought by industrialization and became a leader and innovator in manufacturing, communications and transportation.
We stood up and were counted as a force for freedom during the First World War and sought to forge an international peace afterward. The United States survived a devastating economic depression and then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and America found itself facing its greatest challenge.
The story of how America rose to the occasion of World War II is well known. After the war, I was fortunate to come of age in an America that was asserting its new leadership role in the world. Growing up, I witnessed many examples of our leadership: the Marshall Plan in Europe; the polio vaccine; the GI Bill and the NASA space program.
Each of these examples reinforced my sense that our nation was first: first in our courage to identify the great challenges, first in our capacity to resolve them and first in our compassion to extend the benefits to the rest of the world.
Life passes quickly. I am now a father and a grandfather. America has been first in the world for my entire lifetime. However, I think it is very human to worry about the future. I am concerned about whether America will continue to be first in the world during the lives of my grandchildren. I don’t wish the country to be first just for the sake of being the leader or for the sake of prosperity. I want America to lead as the means to a greater end: the resolution of global challenges we face — challenges such as hunger, disease, poverty, climate change and energy depletion.
In a global economy, for the United States to be the leader, we must be the best in education. America must have the intellectual capacity to solve increasingly complex problems. We must be the inventor, creator and innovator to grow our economy. Few would claim that a cure for AIDS or the prevention of famine is a straightforward problem with a simple solution. And our capacity — our brainpower — depends on education.
On average, our students do not perform as well as students from other countries on standardized tests. Our college-going rate is now lower than that of eight other nations. However, America is still blessed with the best colleges and universities in the world. I also believe that AP® teachers and their classes are the best in the world. I am proud that these classes are reaching more students every day. But we have much work to do.
We must build a system that prepares millions more of our students to be prepared for college-level course work, trains more great teachers, builds more innovative curricula and brings more technology to the classroom. This is the clearest route to college readiness. I ask each of you to join me in being both optimistic and hopeful, for it will take this attitude and this commitment to bring to this and future generations the education they need for America to be first.
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