Podium: Bill Clinton - Education is the global priority

From a speech by the President of the United States to the Education World Congress at the Washington Hilton
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The Independent Culture
AS PRESIDENT, I have had the privilege of visiting schools around our nation and around the world. Wherever I have been, whether in a village in Uganda or a poor neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, a town in California or an inner-city school in Chicago or Philadelphia, I always meet teachers whose dedication to their students is nothing short of heroic. For those people, teaching is not a job, but a mission.

We are living in an era of unprecedented hope and possibility, but profound challenge. A technological revolution is sweeping across the globe. It is changing the way we live and work and relate to each other. It is binding our economies closer together. It is making our world smaller.

Today, 100 million people are logging onto the Internet. In just three years, that number will be about 700 million. With all these changes come new challenges. We know that with technology advancing at rapid speed, the best jobs and the best opportunities will be available only to those with the knowledge to take advantage of them. We know that if we do not take action, dangerous opportunity gaps between those people and those nations who have these skills and those who do not have them will grow and deepen. The best way, to strengthen democracy, to make the most of the possibilities, and to do the best job of meeting the challenges of the 21st century is to guarantee universal, excellent education for every child on our planet.

Where once we focused our development efforts on the construction of factories and power plants, today we must invest more in the power of the human mind, in the potential of every single one of our children. A world-class education for all children is essential to combating the fear, the ignorance, the prejudice that undermine freedom all across the globe today. It is essential to creating a worldwide middle class. It is essential to global prosperity. It is essential to fulfilling the most basic needs of the human body and spirit. That is why the 21st century must be the century of education and of the teacher.

We are working very hard with nations all across the world through our AID programs - our Agency for International Development - and in other ways. At the recent Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, we reaffirmed the commitment of the Americas to work in common on the training of teachers and the development and dissemination of not only technology, but educational software. When I was in Africa, I reaffirmed the focus of many of our aid programs to be on education. We announced in South Africa a project with our Discovery Channel to try to bring technology and the benefits of it to small African villages. We are working in Bosnia and Croatia to help the students there learn about democracy so that they can preserve what so many have given so much to create - a real sustainable peace in a multi-ethnic democracy. All across the world America has an interest in seeing education improve.

One-third of the adults in the world are illiterate today, two-thirds of them live in the poorest countries. We are doing better. The literacy rate was only 43 percent in 1970. The percentage of our children going to school in 1970 across the world was only 48 per cent. Today, it's 77 percent, at least in the primary school years. I still visit countries where basic primary education for girls is still a dream in some places. That must not be.

If we want to see these societies elevated, if we want to see the economies grow, if we want to see families made whole, we must educate all our children, the boys and the girls alike. Here in America, we have recognised the increasing importance of a college education to our position in the global economy. We have made the first two years of college virtually free, with a tax credit we call the Hope Scholarship. We are working to establish high national standards to ensure that our children, from the earliest years, master the basics.

I believe in a global economy. We are working hard to prepare our children for the demands of the Information Age by connecting every classroom and library to the Internet by the year 2000 and by training teachers in these new technologies.

In all my visits at home and abroad, I have found out that you can learn a lot about a country's future by visiting its public schools. Does every child have the same opportunity to learn? Are they engaged by patient, well-trained and inspiring teachers? Do they have access to the materials they need to learn? We have to build a future together where the answer to all these questions is "yes" in every community, in every nation. I know this will happen if teachers lead the way.