The future belongs to those who celebrate the differences of others while working together to create practical solutions for the challenges of today and tomorrow, former President Bill Clinton said at The Riley Institute at Furman University’s celebration of former S.C. Governor Dick Riley.
The event, held at the Peace Center on Tuesday, honored Riley, Clinton’s two-term secretary of education, for his lifelong public service.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the Institute, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary, as it establishes a permanent endowment to support various outreach programs in public education, economic development, leadership, diversity and other issues critical to South Carolina’s progress. More than $4 million has been raised so far.
Both Riley, a Greenville native and 1954 graduate of Furman, and Clinton were greeted by the crowd with a standing ovation.
Riley introduced Clinton, who brought him to Washington, D.C., for two months in 1992 to help with his presidential transition and then asked him to serve as secretary of education. “We ended up staying two months and eight years,” he quipped during the introduction.
They had met when they were both elected governor in the same year. “Bill and I had the same vision for making our states better, and all of that revolved around giving all of our children, all of our children, quality education,” Riley said.
He credited Clinton with building a robust economy that created 22 million new jobs and lowered unemployment, with reforming welfare, with achieving a balanced budget and with enhancing education nationwide.
“He worked collaboratively with Republicans, Democrats and Independents,” Riley said of Clinton’s two terms as president.
Clinton, who said the country must go beyond partisan politics, praised The Riley Institute for its collaboration in outreach projects and its Diversity Leadership Initiative.
He also cited Riley as a walking example of a person who argues ideas but does it with the aim of coming up with practical solutions. He mentioned Riley’s support of schools both in South Carolina and Washington, such as his work to improve the direct student loan program while serving as education secretary.
“Those are the kinds of things we have to lift above partisan politics. We have to put front and center what’s good for our kids,” Clinton said.
Education is a necessity for the United States to prosper, he said, recalling a young life without a television but entertainment from his family’s story-telling. His family was smart but not educated although they insisted he receive a strong education. Teachers are vital and need more respect, he said, citing a study that showed if a child “had even one truly great teacher, that one truly great teacher could increase that student’s lifetime earnings by 10 percent a year, just by changing the way they thought of themselves.”
People must work together to deal with our problems and develop solutions, Clinton said. The United States had 120,000 positions open in computer science last year but graduated only 40,000 students in that field. Also, Mexico, a much smaller country, graduated 113,000 engineers while this country graduated just 120,000.
America can’t allow a whole generation of young people to be both under-employed and under-educated if it expects to succeed in the global economy, he said. And people must work together to ensure that does not occur.
“You could brand Furman as a place where problems are solved and potential is unleashed,” Clinton said.
This country has many advantages: It is the youngest rich country other than Ireland while an 8-year-old can find information on a computer that he had to learn in college. But to benefit from those advantages, the United States needs to educate youth for the future they will live in rather than for today.
He added that “whenever America is in the future business, we do well.” But when the focus is on the present, “we get in trouble.”
San Diego, Calif., has become the center of businesses developing around the human genome, with 700 companies in that field headquartered there. That focus developed because everyone worked together. Orlando, Fla., home of the Disney World and Universal Studios theme parks, has become a center of computer simulation needed not just by theme parks but also NASA and the military – also the result of collaboration.
The Riley Institute, with its collaborative character, can become a catalyst for the same time of cooperative economic development, he said.
The Institute is partnering with KnowledgeWorks Foundation to develop more STEM – science and math-based – high schools throughout the state, with two to be based in Greenville County, said Furman interim President Carl Kohrt.
“It’s all about education and it’s all about cooperation,” Clinton said. “You need all types of people from all walks of life who have a common base of knowledge.”
That diversity, he said, could be seen in the crowd attending The Riley Institute event. Compared with 40 years ago, the crowd was younger with more diversity and more women. Forty years ago, the crowd would have been rich, older men.
E.O. Wilson, a naturalist, said the most triumphant species in the world are ants, bees, termites and people. The common thread in those species is cooperation.
“People are the greatest cooperators who ever lived,” Clinton quote Wilson as saying. But they become arrogant and refuse to cooperate until “we bring ourselves to the brink of destruction.”
Riley is a natural collaborator with an instinctive understanding of human potential, Clinton said.
“We need to get back to the point where we elevate” that spirit of cooperation, where actions are taken for the good of young people and for the good of this country, he said. “This is about whether America will organize itself to make the best of a new century.”